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Snow in Midsummer

Theatre Reviews by James Wilson - June 13, 2022

Dorcas Leung and Kenneth Lee
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
These are discordant times in New Harmony, the Chinese town in which Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's Snow in Midsummer is set. Drought and famine prevail, and the ghost of a wrongly executed young woman is wreaking havoc in the small industrial community. The play, now running at Classic Stage Company, is based on the 13th-century drama The Injustice to Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth by Guan Hanqing. While retaining references to class oppression and political injustice, the new version offers very contemporary attitudes toward social justice, gender expression, and sexual orientation.

Three years before the action of the play is set, Dou Yi (Dorcas Leung), a young widow and street peddler, was accused of murdering the town's factory owner, Master Zhang (Kenneth Lee). Although innocent, Dou Yi confessed to the crime in order to protect her ailing mother-in-law (Wai Ching Ho), and she was sentenced to death. As her execution approached, the young woman promised that her guiltlessness would be proven by ecological upheaval sent by the spirits, including a snowfall in June and followed by three years without rain.

Jumping forward, powerful entrepreneur Tianyun (Teresa Avia Lim) is set to become the new factory owner, and she and her adopted daughter Fei-Fei (Fin Moulding) expeditiously establish themselves within the drought-stricken community. Tianyun is taking the reins from the former owner's son, Handsome Zhang (John Yi), who is engaged to marry former bar dancer Rocket Wu (Tommy Bo). There are also several factory workers and police officers (Paul Juhn, Julian Leung, and Alex Vinh) who provide valuable exposition.

Tianyun does not have an easy transition into her life in New Harmony. For reasons that become clear in a series of revelations, confessions, and flashbacks, the ghost of Dou Yi haunts Fei-Fei as well as the naïve Rocket Wu, who had a heart transplant before he turned 30. The central conceit focuses on whether the curse will be broken and justice will be served.

Originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015, Snow in Midsummer is billed as a ("thrilling") murder mystery and ("spellbinding") ghost story, and it has the requisite twists and turns one expects of the genre. In its updating of Hanqing's drama, for instance, there are traces of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk and plays by J.B. Priestly, Agatha Christie, and Conor McPherson.

Teresa Avia Lim, Alex Vinh, Julian Leong, Paul Juhn,
and Wai Ching Ho

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
Directed at a fever pitch by Zi Alikhan, Cowhig's play, however, lacks the edge-of-the-seat suspense one hopes for and anticipates. Instead of offering apprehension and eeriness, the production is frenetic and loud. The actors seem to be in constant motion, and tension is jettisoned through ear-splitting screams and angry shouting. It doesn't help matters that the characters are presented more as superficial types rather than as individuals.

What makes Snow in Midsummer intellectually intriguing, though, is how it merges elements of traditional Chinese opera, images of the Cultural Revolution, current perspectives of gender presentation, and implicit references to the recent surge in violence against Asians in the United States.

These elements are especially evident in the production design. Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's vivid and colorful lighting offers a sharp contrast to the deliberately cold and geometric scenic design (which includes a photo on a wall that looks like a threatening portrait of Mao) by the collective known as dots. Johanna Pan's costumes seem to traverse history and socio-political viewpoints, and these are supported by recognizable cultural manifestations, such as a parade dragon puppet (Caitlyn Murphy is the prop supervisor), original music by Fan Zhang, and movement by Sunny Min-Sook Hitt.

In addition, audiences entering the theatre will notice a brightly adorned and unoccupied seat in each of the three main sections. These "Ghost Chairs," as they are described in the program, have been designed by student artist Kalani Van Meter and are meant to honor victims of anti-Asian bias. It is a very moving gesture.

Alas, in the end, the competing dramaturgical intentions, political aims, and production ideas overwhelm the narrative. As the great mystery and ghost-story writers have demonstrated, all aspects of a thriller need to be razor sharp and cohere in perfect unison. There is no room for cerebral discordance in the singular focus on whodunnit.

Snow in Midsummer
Through July 9, 2022
Lynn F. Angelson Theater, Classic Stage Company, 136 E 13th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: