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Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 22, 2023

James Patrick Nelson and Angel Lin
Photo by Russ Rowland
I have long maintained that everything I know about anything comes from the theatre. For instance, my understanding of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Commodore Perry opening up trade with Japan, and even Lyndon B. Johnson's turbulent presidency is filtered through the musicals and plays I have seen. Therefore, it was quite illuminating to learn the full backstory behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial through Livian Yeh's Memorial, which is currently playing at A.R.T New York Theatres in a production by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre. Even though, according to the program notes, the drama takes a fair amount of liberty with the actual people and events, it offers a striking view of a Washington, D.C., landmark I have visited several times and admired without knowing the complete, fraught history that brought it into being.

For those (like me) who have just a cursory knowledge of the Wall, as it is often called, the narrative centers around the young artist and aspiring architect Maya Lin (Angel Lin). Maya was a student at Yale when she won a national contest for her design. In the play, Wolf von Eckhart (Robert Meksin), who fled Germany during World War II, and Colonel James Becker (James Patrick Nelson), a Vietnam veteran, represent the notably divided selection committee. From the outset, the design and the designer are controversial. War veterans, as channeled through Becker, disapprove of the plan, which includes two black granite walls, partially underground construction, and a scar-like quality when looked at from above. Rather than honoring the lives of those lost in the war, veterans argue the memorial casts shade on the period. They are also appalled that the deaths of American soldiers caused by enemies in an Asian country should be memorialized through the work of an Asian American woman, whom they refer to publicly as "an eggroll," "slanty-eyed designer," and "of dubious origins."

As the controversy roils, Maya receives support and guidance from a Japanese American architect, Hideo Sasaki (Glenn Kubota). Sasaki knows firsthand the experiences of anti-Asian brutality having been incarcerated in a Japanese internment camp in the 1940s. Rounding out the cast is Maya's mother Julia (Rachel Lu), who had escaped China in the lead up to the Cultural Revolution.

Like the best history-based dramas, audiences know how the play will end–spoiler: the memorial is completed–but there are enough twists and turns and a fair amount of headstrong resistance to compromise (on both sides) that the outcome seems no less miraculous. To her credit, Yeh successfully synthesizes the individuals and incidents into a compact 95-minute play. While celebrating the achievements of the people behind the Wall, the playwright also deftly interjects references to international genocides and shameful episodes of intolerance in the United States. In its own way, Memorial commemorates the resilience of people who have courageously endured or valiantly stood up to tyrannies.

Jeff Liu's direction finds the right balance between historical reverence and distinctive humanity. Lin gives a fiery performance as the young student, and she is well supported by the rest of the company. As her main adversary, Nelson is a little too stiff in the first few scenes, but by the end it pays off in an utterly heartbreaking scene in which he sheds the impenetrable military armor that keeps his emotions in check. Meksin is an energetic go-between, and Kubota offers a moving portrait of a psychologically wounded man seeking solace in his trees, plants, and architectural achievements. Lu is terrific as Maya's mother, particularly during a traditional tea ceremony in which she tries to force the warring parties to talk.

Sheryl Lu's scenic design, which consists of a slightly raised platform and moving white panels, marvelously evokes the sleek and modern outline of the Wall, and Gregory Casparian's excellent projections perfectly capture the shifting locales and changing political atmospheres, as well as visualizing the architectural elements of the memorial. Victor En Yu Tan's lighting, Karen Boyer's costumes, and Da Xu's sound design further ground the play in historical realism while also portraying the unfortunate timelessness of the issues raised.

Truthfully, I was not very keen on seeing this play based on its generic and banal title, but I am rarely disappointed with the work of Pan Asian Rep. Indeed, I'm very glad I saw it. Memorial monumentalizes an important and not altogether shining moment in our past and offers a useful reminder of the lessons that are all too soon forgotten.

Through February 19, 2023
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: