Chiz (played by Melissa Locsin, left), and Rose (Carina Lastimosa) try to adjust to the changes in their home after returning from a Japanese internment camp in “Sisters Matsumoto” at Center Repertory Company.
This year is the 75th anniversary of a shameful chapter in American history, the rounding up of around 120,000 people of Japanese descent — most of them American citizens — into concentration camps during World War II. Berkeley’s TheatreFIRST just finished a run of a new play about one of those families in March, “Beneath the Tall Tree,” and now Center Repertory Company revives “Sisters Matsumoto,” eminent Berkeley playwright Philip Kan Gotanda’s drama about another such family, at Walnut Creek’s Lesher Center for the Arts.
“Sisters Matsumoto” premiered at Seattle Rep in 1999 in a production that came to San Jose Rep later that year, directed by Seattle Rep artistic director Sharon Ott (who had previously been Berkeley Rep’s artistic director).
Center Rep’s production is directed with immaculate care and understated poignancy by Mina Morita, artistic director of San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater. Just one look at Andrea Bechert’s set speaks volumes — a partially deconstructed house with an elegant interior and run-down exterior, as if past and present were coexisting side by side. Some of the walls are missing so that the arch of the roof and a second-floor window hang in midair.
It’s 1945 in Stockton and three sisters are finally returning to their family farm after their years imprisoned in an internment camp. Their father, a pillar of the Japanese-American community, died in the camp. The farm is a mess, but they’ve come back to try to build a new life.
The eldest, Grace (a subdued Keiko Shimosato Carreiro), is solemn, almost severe, in her pride in the family name and her resolve to reclaim the life that was taken from them. She and her husband, Hideo (portrayed by Ogie Zulueta with a reserved stoicism that resonates beautifully), have a disconnected sort of relationship that seems more businesslike than anything else.
Middle sister Chiz (bold and buoyant Melissa Locsin) couldn’t be more different, jaunty, fun-loving and determined to assimilate into white American society as thoroughly as possible. Her husband, Bola (cheerfully rowdy Tasi Alabastro), a doctor from Hawaii, is somehow even more boisterous and impulsive, sometimes hilariously so.
Youngest sister Rose (a sympathetic if sometimes stagy Carina Lastimosa), who lost a fiance to the war, is more directionless and haunted by the past. Finding Rose a husband has become a high priority for the Matsumotos, somehow as much so as getting the family on its feet again, and they’ve enlisted a matchmaker to find her suitable suitors, none of whom quite get to the point where we actually see them.
Coming to pay his respects is Henry Sakai, a nearly forgotten childhood playmate, played by Alexander M. Lydon with such unassuming forthrightness that one keeps waiting for the character to turn out to be not what he seems. Colin Thomson enters with some bashful trepidation foreshadowing bad news as Mr. Hersham, their white next-door neighbor and an old family friend.
There’s a whole lot of expository dialogue, but it feels fairly natural as the family attempts to process and in some way reclaim its past as a way of forging ahead to some brighter or at least workable future. The play strikes a sensitive balance between the Matsumotos’ struggle to reconnect with their lives and each other and their attempt to process and find a way to navigate their painful awareness that their fellow Americans don’t really see them as fellow Americans.
That last part makes the play feel all too timely in a period when powerful forces in this country again seek to exclude and expel people based on their national origin, religion or ethnicity. These are the stories that we must keep telling, lest we grow complacent and let it all happen again.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at email@example.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
By Philip Kan Gotanda, presented by Center Repertory Company
Through: April 29
Where: Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek
Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $33-$55; 925-943-7469, www.centerrep.org