Regional Reviews: San Francisco
Cherylene Lee's The Legacy Codes
Also see Richard's review of Fraulein Else
TheatreWorks is currently presenting playwright Cherylene Lee's newest play based on how Asian Americans view themselves and how they are viewed by non Asians. The Legacy Codes was inspired by the prominent saga of nuclear weapons scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was charged with downloading atomic secrets at Los Alamos and giving this information to the Chinese government. He was imprisoned and he and his family were subjected to public embarrassment. After a short term in prison, the scientist was released and the case against him collapsed.
Ms. Lee has changed the name of the family and some of the facts of the actual case. The plot involves two families, one Chinese and the other Occidental. Dr. Tai Liu (Jim Ishida), a Taiwanese born naturalized citizen physicist with top security clearance at the Livermore Laboratory, is head of the Chinese family. He is proud of his Chinese heritage when he comes up with science based riddles like "Where was the first seismograph developed?" with the answer always being "China."
Dr. Liu has a rap-reciting son Erling (Trieu Tran) who does not care for his Chinese heritage and does not want to follow in his father's footsteps. He is majoring in English literature and thinking of dropping out of school to study the oral traditions of Appalachia. He has no interest in his father's work. There is a strong conflict between the father and son over values of each other's life. Tai's wife Ming (Wai Ching Ho) is the bridge between the two. She follows faithfully in the ways of her husband, but she secretly wants to be free from the old ways. He son calls her "an Asian Isadora Duncan" when she divulges that she took dance classes from Arthur Murray years earlier. She also did some work for the CIA in an attempt to be her own person in the early years of her marriage. (This is also based on fact that Wen Ho Lee's wife worked for the CIA at one time).
The other family is the Fortiers, an Occidental family. They are friends of the Liu family since Richard is head of security at the lab. He is also the son of a distinguished scientist who was a co-worker and teacher of Dr. Liu. Richard's neurosis about the loyalty of Dr. Liu is based on his hatred of his own father who spent so little time with him during his childhood. He subconsciously sees this in Dr. Liu's relation to his son. Richard rants and raves about the Nixon ideas of "national security" and starts to suspect that Dr. Liu is downloading classified legacy codes (computer simulations of plutonium explosions) to the mainland Chinese government. "Legacy codes" is a term used by computer experts for any archaic codes which are still necessary to run complex computer programs. Richard's wife Diane (Sheila Savage) is, of all things, an FBI agent and she begins her own suspicions when she borrows an Asian Fusion cookbook from Ming. The cookbook contains harmless secret recipes of Asian food for modern tastes. They also have strange markings that the agent believes is a secret code.
The Fortiers have a rebellious daughter Minna (Susy McInerny) who is having a romance with Erling. She is interested in knowing more about Chinese culture. In fact Erling says "You are more Chinese than me."
Legacy Codes centers mostly around the conflict between the father and son and the son's loyalty to his father when the doctor is accused of spying. The Fortiers become a subplot to the main idea of the drama.
Cherylene Lee, a fourth generation Chinese actress and playwright, contends in the drama that "the DNA code can be interpreted as what is passed on in families regarding culture, family secrets and genetic traits." Ms. Lee also believes that this "relates how people and institutions want to be remembered in the future."
The acting of the small cast is excellent. Los Angeles actor Trieu Tran, who has appeared in many of the East-West plays down south, is outstanding as Erling in his rebel against his father's ideas and his love for Minna. He is also great performing his rap routines with a driving force and has wonderful physical dexterity.
Jim Ishida plays his Tai like a tense striver, at least as seen by his son. However, as the play progresses, his self deceptions start to fail and we see a complete change in the character. Wai Ching Ho, a member of the Pan Asian Rep in New York, is wonderful as Ming. She is intriguing in the role and her American Chinese dialect is top drawer. She gives a sleek, beautiful performance and we see that she is not the obedient servant we would expect from a model Chinese wife.
Susy McInerny as Minna makes a perfect rebellious daughter. There are genuine emotions coming from her in her romance with the Chinese son. Both Michael Keys Hall and Sheila Savage are convincing as the senior Fortiers; however, their characters are not properly fleshed out.
Director Amy Gonzales uses a fast pace in the staging with interesting dance movements. There is one brilliant scene when the six characters come stage forward and each say one sentence about the family. Each sentence is the same but composed differently. A very ingenious idea.
Andrea Bechert's set is spartan with a large suggestive DNA sculpture dominating the left side of the stage. The walls are slated blue cobalt in color, and the back wall has projections flashing computer codes, formulas, bomb blueprints and architectural figures.
The Legacy Codes runs thru April 6 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, Ca. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org. The TheatreWorks' next production will be the revised version of Paul Gordon and John Caird's musical Jane Eyre which opens on April 9th.