By: Brian Scott Lipton
June 8, 2022: Buddha. The Goddess of Mercy. An appearance by Ox Head and Horse Face, who decide on reincarnation. Yes, we’re definitely in China during Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s ambitious “Snow in Midsummer, now getting its U.S premiere at Classic Stage Company, but you can be excused if you think you’re watching a lost Shakespeare play or even a modern soap opera. Because there is also an avenging ghost, tons of hidden secrets, and enough plot twists to fuel a month’s worth of “General Hospital.” As a result, you’ll probably never bored, though you might be confused – even when you exit the theater.
Indeed, the powerful core of this story occasionally gets lost due largely to the excessiveness of Cowhig’s script, full of flowery speeches and extraneous characters that could easily be excised — allowing us to focus more intently on the complex plot.
Moreover, director Zi Alikhan makes a valiant if not completely successful attempt to stage a play with this many scene changes at the minimalist-oriented CSC, which results in too much moving of furniture and a lack of specificity to some of the show’s locales. Scenic design group dots does come up with some inventive solutions and Alikhan implements some very striking visual effects, but ultimately, the play might have been better served by a different theater space.
Anyway, back to the play: Successful businesswoman Tianyun (the excellent Teresa Avila Lim) has come to the once-prosperous town of New Harmony – along with her adopted seven-year-old daughter Fai-Fai (Fin Moulding) to purchase its factories from the Zhang family, whose longtime patriarch (Kenneth Lee, effective in all three of his roles) was murdered three years before. However, the whodunit and whydunit of this killing isn’t revealed until nearly the end of the 2 ½-hour play.
In any case, Tianyun has the full cooperation of the Master’s son, Handsome Zhang (a rather whiny John Yi), who can’t wait to take the money and run away with his gay lover Rocket (a really appealing Tommy Bo — a move heartily supported by Handsome’s former wet nurse and confidante Nurse Wong (a brilliant Wai Ching Ho), who now runs the local bar.
It’s a little bit mysterious why Tianyun wants the factories, given that New Harmony has been in a major drought for three years – ever since it snowed one day in June.
As is frequently discussed, these conditions could be caused by climate change and are merely temporary. Or are they really the prophecy-come-true of Dou Yi (a powerful Dorcas Leung), a young widow who was wrongly executed for Master Zhang’s killing and who not only haunts most of these characters but comes back to life (in some way) to tamper with them with sometimes dire consequences?
The answer to that question – and how everyone is actually related to everyone else (especially Dou Yi) — are eventually answered, as is true of the Bard’s work. And like with Shakespeare, everyone ultimately answers for their actions – some by death, some by imprisonment, and some by forgiveness. Whether the play’s conclusion satisfies, or leads to a “Midsummer” of discontent, may vary for each audience member.
Snow In Midsummer
Classic Stage Company
136 E 13th St, New York, NY 10003
May 20-July 9, 2022
Photography: Julieta Cervantes