By Stanford Friedman
Knowing the hearts of others is never an easy task, and it is especially challenging for the all but doomed citizens of New Harmony, the dying Chinese factory town that is the setting for Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 2017 drama, Snow in Midsummer. The tickers of these town folks are metaphorically crushed, literally transplanted, possibly torn whole from the body, hardened by injustice, and mellowed by a mother’s love. Which is to say that the play is something of a soap opera. But thanks to some impassioned performances, sharp direction by Zi Alikhan, and a script that leans heavily into ancient Chinese beliefs regarding death and the afterlife, the production is never less than gripping.
Based on a 13th century work, The Injustice of Dou Yi That Moved Heaven and Earth, by Guan Hanqing, the feeling of being at once ancient yet modern, feminist yet powerless, resonates throughout the evening. Time is non-linear, bloodlines are long, spirits haunt the stage and nature itself is unsettled with New Harmony stuck in its own evil-fueled climate change disaster. Snow fell on a June day when a young woman was sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit and a three-year-long drought has since taken hold.
That woman, Dou Yi (Dorcas Leung) is one of the play’s two central figures. We meet her first as an innocent young widow, then as a ghost seeking justice. Not only was she wrongly convicted for the murder of the corrupt factory boss, Master Zhang (Kenneth Lee), but her heart, in a nod to China’s dark past practice of harvesting organs from the recently executed, was transplanted into the body of a young man named Rocket Wu (Tommy Bo). Rocket’s lover is Handsome Zhang (John Yi), the Master’s son, so yeah, it’s complicated and, ultimately, tragic.
The other central figure is Tianyun (Teresa Avia Lim) who is intent on purchasing Zhang’s factories despite New Harmony’s desperate state. Her motivations, as well as her surprising connection to Dou Yi, and a path toward salvation are all ultimately revealed as the play’s second act unwinds around its first, with occasional stopovers in the hereafter. In one of the play’s beautifully realized conceits, traditional symbolic gifts for the departed, a small paper cutout of a coat for instance, are placed into a fiery caldron by a living character and magically received by the dead in the netherworld as that actual full-sized object. Dou Yi’s ghost is ultimately satisfied to reside there, but not before proffering a warning the to audience, both environmental and political:
Make the world right for your children
Make sure no child needs wings
Or you may wake to find your own bones and flesh
Mutilated by the world you turned your back on
Leung’s strong performance as Dou Yi is full of powerful transitions, from innocent victim to wailing ghost to tough-minded seer. Bo and Yi have fine chemistry as Rocket and Handsome; their grief is palpable. Lee is appropriately villainous as Zhang and Wai Ching Ho is captivating as Nurse Wong, Handsome’s one-time wet nurse with secrets of her own. Director Alikhan works wonders with Cowhig’s far-ranging script, bringing clarity to the leaps in time and place, aided by Jeanette Yew’s intense lighting design.
The Classic Stage Company theater, spooky in its own right with its cavernous house and bare walls, gets an added boost of boo courtesy of artist Kalani Van Meter who transforms three house seats into ghost chairs, decorated with fabric and meant to honor the deceased, in this case specifically those lost to anti-Asian bias. Like the show itself, the artwork offers traditional forms as an aid to coping with contemporary terrors.
Snow in Midsummer – by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig and directed by Zi Alikhan
WITH: Tommy Bo (Rocket Wu), Wai Ching Ho (Nurse Wong/Mother Cai), Paul Juhn (Worker Chen), Kenneth Lee (Master Zhang/Doctor Lu/Judge Wu), Julian Leong (Worker Fang), Dorcas Leung (Dou Yi), Teresa Avia Lim (Tianyun), Fin Moulding (Fei-Fei), Alex Vinh (Worker Huang) and John Yi (Handsome Zhang)
dots (Scenic Design), Johanna Pan (Costume Design), Jeanette Yew (Lighting Design), Fan Zhang (Sound Design), Brittany Hartman (Hair and Makeup Design), Sunny Min-Soon Hitt (Movement Director), Judi Lewis Ockler (Fight and Intimacy Director), Caitlin Murphy (Prop Supervisor). Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th St., 212.677.4210, https://www.classicstage.org/current-season/snow-in-midsummer. Through Saturday, July 9. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.