Photo by Michael Lamont

Philip Kan Gotanda’s play Sisters Matsumoto opens with the promise of grim discovery. Or rather, the design elements of this East West Players production seem to make that promise, from Victoria Petrovich’s spare set with its pair of barren trees, to a desolate horizon lit by José López, to Nathan Wang’s bleak music score. These form just the kind of metaphorical landscape we’d expect a family to return to after an exile. (I half expected Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon to pop in at any moment.) The revenants here are the Matsumoto clan, who have just arrived at their Stockton, California, farm after spending three years of internment during WWII. The family patriarch, Togo (Ken Takemoto), died in an Arkansas relocation camp, but his ghost hovers about the stage as a witness to events that he helped set in motion while alive.

Three sisters try to resuscitate the broken-down spread: bossy Grace (Emily Kuroda), earthy Chiz (Natsuko Ohama), and baby sis Rose (Elaine Kao), whose boyfriend was killed fighting in Europe. The place has been vandalized and its fields have been allowed to go fallow, but the Matsumotos are nothing if not determined. Besides the women, there is Grace’s aloof, scholastic husband, Hideo (Sab Shimono), who dreams of starting a Japanese-language newspaper, much to the annoyance of Chiz’s Hawaiian husband, Bola (Nelson Mashita); meanwhile, everyone approvingly observes the courtship of Rose and a childhood acquaintance, Henry (Ryun Yu). By the end of Act 1, this Chekhovian group suddenly faces another diaspora upon learning that shortly before his death, Togo sold the farm out from under them to a utility company — in other words, they haven’t even the right to be where they are standing.

Sisters Matsumoto is the story of Japanese-Americans trying to rebuild in a country that regards them as trespassers. The play also provides evidence that irony is indeed dead, for it sits like a wooden duck decoy on a pond — a facsimile of life that can neither speak nor move forward, much less fly. There’s no escaping the fact that Gotanda’s narrative is an “identity” play — not because it is a story about an ethnic subset of the American population, but because its characters are shaped by that group’s defining moment in its relationship with the larger country: the internments.

Because of America’s turbulent history of ethnic discrimination, identity plays tend to be dominated by both hurt and memory, and so they speak the language of complaint and speak it in the past tense — there’s seldom any worry of audience expectations being thwarted or unseemly surprises being sprung on us. The warning signs appear here early enough, when the story’s historical exposition unfolds as a string of prerecorded news items broadcast on the family radio. So we come to expect it when, afterward, almost every character delivers mouthfuls of explanation and reminiscences; every time there is a danger of action transpiring onstage, someone will get dreamy-eyed and say, “Remember the time when . . .” and momentum hits the brakes.

Despite Gotanda’s best efforts to evoke the rural splendor of Central California, his play never loses its
history-lesson awkwardness or its brittle conversational tone. (Hideo to Bola: “Maybe my silence isn’t a silence but an angry shout that I have kept locked inside.”)

There are other problems. Chay Yew’s opaque direction often strings his actors along flat planes, and their body language is almost nonexistent. Too, the Matsumotos are never convincing as farmers, and when a large sum of money materializes to offer a new future for them, no one ever suggests the most obvious use for it — namely, to use it as a down payment on another farm. This kind of inert play writing is killing theater from the inside out — a theater without surprises but plenty
of memories.

SISTERS MATSUMOTO | By PHILIP KAN GOTANDA At EAST WEST PLAYERS, 120 Judge John Aiso St., downtown | Through February 17

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