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Internment Memories in ‘Gila River’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Lane Nishikawa wavers between the organic and the obvious in “Gila River,” which opened Thursday at the Japan America Theatre. An often moving but just as frequently belabored memory drama, “Gila River” is set in the internment camp of that name in Arizona, where more than 15,000 Japanese American citizens were interned during World War II.

The action opens in 1972, with Mitsue (Sharon Omi), a former internee, wandering through the wind-swept ruins of the desert outpost where she spent most of her adolescence. Mitsue, underplayed with moving intensity by Omi, functions as the narrator and glue of the drama, which is orchestrated in a series of flashbacks.

Alternately seen in 1942, the younger Mitsue (Emily Liu) soon adapts to the painful dislocation, befriending Florence (Jennifer Nool), a local Indian girl. For her mother, Taiko (Emily Kuroda), and her older brother Masao (Ryun Yu), the adjustment isn’t so easy. Taiko still doesn’t know the whereabouts of her husband, Katsuro (Ken Narasaki), detained by the FBI as a suspected spy. And Masao, a brilliant baseball player, fears that his dream of a pro career will be forever deferred.

Their dilemma brings forth tears. But Nishikawa overplays his poignant subject, too often sacrificing dramatic credibility to the contrivances of melodrama. Young Mitsue, alone in a room, reads a letter aloud for no reason other than obvious exposition. Katsuro returns from his long FBI incarceration not only tubercular but showily deranged. And when Masao finds his missing older brother, smack in the maelstrom of the Pacific campaign, that brother is on the point of death.

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Still, there are those tears. Other saving graces include the refreshingly cheeky Yu, a boy pushed into manhood too soon, and the sweetly stoical Kuroda as a mother trying to salvage her shattered family.

* “Gila River,” Japan America Theatre, 244 San Pedro St., downtown L.A. Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20-$25. (213) 680-3700. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.


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