Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Far Country
Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Also see Patrick's recent reviews of The 39 Steps and Unpacking in P'Town

Feodor Chin, Aaron Wilton, and Whit K. Lee
Photo by Kevin Berne
There has likely never been a more appropriate time to stage Lloyd Suh's The Far Country, a play commissioned by New York's Atlantic Theatre Company that had its world premiere there in 2022, and is enjoying its West Coast debut in a stunningly brilliant production in Berkeley Rep's Peet's Theatre. Though The Far Country takes place in the early decades of the 20th century, its story of the challenges immigrants face in chasing the American Dream currently occupies a large space in our present political cycle. With masses of men, women and children crossing the southern border–and seemingly an equal number of pundits and politicians railing about it–The Far Country's tale of one family's origin story as Americans is chillingly timely.

Suh's tale begins in 1910 when Gee (Feodor Chin) applies for birthright citizenship, claiming he was born in San Francisco to Chinese parents. Now working in a Chinese laundry, Gee wants citizenship so he can return to China to see the family he created during previous visits, and not worry about being turned away at the border because of the Chinese Exclusion Act which, beginning in 1882, denied entry (let alone citizenship) to any Chinese.

The challenge for Gee as he faces rigorous questioning from the interrogating Inspector (understudy Aaron Wilton) is that he has no paperwork to back up his claim, as all his papers were lost in the fire that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. All the city's birth records were destroyed, as well, so the only hope Gee has is his sincerely rendered claims of honesty. Complicating matters is the fact that many Chinese men took advantage of the conflagration to claim having been born in the United States. The Inspector is fully aware of this, explaining to Gee that, given there are so few Chinese women in America at that time, each of them would had to have borne at least 20 sons to account for all those applications.

The stakes are high for Gee but they will go much higher after he ultimately charms the Inspector–with a little help from the Interpreter (Whit K. Lee)–into granting his request. (A note on interpretation: as the Inspector grills him, the Interpreter repeats everything the Inspector says, but in English, not Chinese. When Gee confesses he knows a little English, he speaks in heavily accented, somewhat-broken grammar. We know when he switches back to his native tongue, because he speaks directly to the Interpreter in unaccented, perfect English.)

Without spoiling the surprises Suh has suffused throughout this work (which was a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and to my mind should have won), Gee uses his newly won citizenship to begin a cycle of exploitation of impoverished Chinese that will ultimately result in Gee beginning his own modest dynasty in America.

The play–directed with energy and grace by Jennifer Chang and acted with tremendous skill by a wondrous troupe–is a marvel of elegant storytelling. The stakes continue to rise as each scene unfolds itself. The tension is intense for Gee, but it's even higher for Moon Gyet (Tommy Bo), whose mother (Tess Lina) goes deep into debt to have Gee take him back to America, posing as his son.

Despite a final scene that might play a touch too long, this production is near perfection. Everything works–the set (by Wilson Chin) is glorious: a flat wall upstage that is a projection surface (for designs by Hsuan-Kuang Hsieh), yet also slides to reveal the farm where Moon Gyet and his mother live. A few chairs, a table, and scores of file boxes reinforce the sense of claustrophobic bureaucratic passage Gee and his pseudo-family must navigate. The choreography created by Erika Chong Shuch isn't quite dance, but it's something much more than simple blocking, and adds to the feeling of endless, chaotic waiting those awaiting processing on Angel Island must endure.

There is poetry in Suh's script, both his own and that of immigrants who were interned at the Angel Island Detention Center, and carved their poetry in Mandarin on the walls. (Authorities puttied and painted over the poems, but as the center aged and the putty shrunk away from the concrete wall, they were rediscovered, in 1970, and can be seen today, as the Center has been converted into a museum.) In one especially moving moment, Moon Gyet is asked by his interrogators about what details he had been warned the government might ask of him, and he launches into a litany of items both mundane and sacred that feels very much like a poem itself.

The Far Country is so rich, its characterizations so detailed, and its dramatic arc so beautifully rendered, that it's one of those plays you could see several times and still not be able to take it all in. At the end of his life, Gee, being attended to by his faux son's wife Yuen (Sharon Shao)–who feeds him soup I swear you could smell in the theater!–becomes a little forgetful, and delivers a line that will break your heart: "Sometimes the memory is sadder than the forgetting." I for one will remember The Far Country for a long, long time.

The Far Country runs through April 14, 2024, at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Peet's Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Shows are Tuesdays at 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays at 7:00pm, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays and Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $22.50-$134, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 510-647-2949.