In Far East
, 1950s couples are beset by cultural demons common to the time. With echoes of Madame Butterfly
and Miss Saigon ,
it's the story of an American sailor going to a foreign country and entering into a romantic liaison with a (gasp) foreigner.
Before you stifle a yawn (been there, done that) know that On the Verge Producing Artistic Director Ron Jones describes the play by A.R. Gurney, as a comedic drama. He first read the play 22 years ago, during a time that playwright Gurney was very popular, Jones says. "I was really taken with the subject matter and the writing. He's often very clever and funny and the subject itself.
On the Verge Theatre in association with The Alta Arts is presenting Far East — with Jones directing —
as the first offering of its 2023-24 season. Brock Huerter is the Sparky Watts, the young lieutenant who falls in love with a local girl in Japan. Jason Duga (Dollface
at Mildred's Umbrella) is Captain James Anderson, who carries a heavy burden — his son who was also a Navy pilot died while on a flying mission over Korea.
Nova Wang (a monk in The Oldest Boy
at Main Street Theater) is the Reader who functions in the style of a Kabuki narrator in the two-act to move along the story. Christian Tannous (The Sound Inside at 4th Wall Theatre Co. )who also functions as assistant director plays Bob Munger. And Leslie Lenert (Pride and Prejudice
at 4th Wall Theatre Co.) is Julia Anderson, the second wife of the captain, who is not exactly happy about Sparky's involvement with a Japanese woman.
"The play is about a group of Americans in the 1950s on an American naval base in Japan and it follows mainly one character who is young who arrives there, rather fresh-faced, wanting adventure, open to the world. What he encounters is a lot of other Americans who are a little more jaded," Lenert says.
"My character and the character of my husband are going through a marriage that is on the rocks and are also struggling with their own personal demons. Everyone's bringing in their own secrets and their own baggage. The play is about everyone dealing with the cultural tensions of that time period that are from American prejudices at the time and American society at the time. "The United States did everything they could to separate those people," Jones added.
"That brings in tensions like American women being cast aside or upset that a lot of American men were bringing home Japanese wives." And despite fairly strong rules forbidding fraternization between American officers and Japanese women, those rules were often flouted, she says.
As Sparky tries to break away from the cultural prejudices and do something different, Lenert says, he's encountering systems and people who are trying to drag him back into those prejudiced rules of society, she says.
This is the second season for On the Verge with Jones and Co-Producing Artistic Director Bruce Lumpkin. In describing Far East,
Jones called the subject matter "a traditional one," Welcome news is that they have found a home in Alta Arts, which was originally an arts studio and galley. In the first season they bounced around from one location to another around Houston.
Describing her own character Julia in Far East, Lenert says "She has had a career [before her marriage.] She works for the Voice of America. So she was setting up radio stations all over the world and that's how she met her husband later in life." She keeps telling Sparky to connect to the American culture in Japan.
"Also she's lived a more independent life and also she's not feeling connected to her husband anymore and is struggling with that. So what you get in the play is this interesting dynamic where sometimes it feels like I'm being [Sparky's] older sister then later on you get an attraction between them so that becomes a whole other layer of tension."
Asked what the biggest challenge she's had in portraying Julia, Lenert says:
"These characters are swimming in the waters of the 1950s. These were my grandparents. My grandfather was an army mechanic. Knowing they were living with this prejudice as an undercurrent without being questioned much and bringing that to life in a very human way and not making it simple and digging into the nuance of that, just making that a whole person has been the challenge.
"At the same time when I look at Julia, I'm like well,I really don't agree with some of your views. However, she is a human in this story that I am trying to portray. Some of the other actors and I have talked about this and if we're doing it right, you see everybody's point of view, even if you don't agree with it.
"All these characters are carrying secrets. It seems like it was a time when people just carried secrets."
Performances are scheduled through September 17 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 3 p.m. Sundays (with an additional pay-as-you-can industry night scheduled for Monday, September 18) at The Alta Arts, 5412 Ashbrook. For more information, visit onthevergetheatre.org or brightcatchmediaevents.com. $30-$45.