On the night her younger sister Hanako (Jo Mei) disappears, Reiko (Yurié Collins) tells her that their mother never wanted her. Reiko’s guilt over that petty argument scars her for the rest of her life. She followed Hanako out in the middle of a storm but lost sight of her when a wave crashed on the shoreline. Reiko tells the investigating officer that she saw two men on the beach but nobody else in their seaside town can corroborate her account. Her mom Etsuko (Sharon Omi) suspects that Tetsuo (Julian Cihi), a longtime family friend, had something to do with it since he was also at their house that night.
In The Great Wave, playwright Francis Turnly dramatizes this family’s ability, and inability, to cope with their loss. But he also gives an ongoing history lesson to provide some context for his narrative that’s loosely based on a true story. Hanako doesn’t get washed out to sea. Reiko did, in fact, see two men on the beach that night. They kidnapped her sister and brought her back to North Korea. Under Kim Il-sung’s leadership from 1972 to 1994, the government abducted more than a dozen Japanese citizens. Turnly, who is half-Japanese, aligns the audience’s sympathies with Hanako’s sister and mother. How could he not? It’s a formula that’s aimed at and achieves a cathartic response. Anyone who’s gone through a period of bereavement can identify with Reiko and Etsuko’s confusion and sorrow.
What the playwright only mentions in passing is the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, and, among other atrocities, the thousands of “comfort women” they kidnapped. The Great Wave’s program includes an essay detailing the bad blood between the two countries. But if you didn’t know about that specific chapter of their shared history, the play doesn’t position the North Korean kidnappings as a retaliatory — and grotesquely deluded — gesture. Years after she’s endured a forced assimilation into North Korean society, the government official (Paul Juhn) in charge of her case admits to Hanako that his thugs only took her, in particular, by chance. He didn’t really have a plan in place and was just following orders.
Whereas North Korean officials like him come across as brainwashed and in an anxiety-ridden thrall to their dictator, the Japanese government, in comparison, is paralyzed by custom and bureaucracy. Tetsuo’s family was ruined by the suggestion that he was responsible for Hanako’s disappearance. After he spends several years wandering around the country, he becomes a budding journalist and pieces together other related headlines about missing persons. He brings his theory back to Reiko and they convince her mother that Hanako may still be alive in Korea. Jiro (Paul Nakauchi), a monotoned civil servant in the foreign office, grants them an appointment. He politely dismisses their claim while trimming his bonsai, stating flatly that Japan isn’t in a position to negotiate with Kim Il-sung. Even Etsuko’s maternal pleas fail to move him.
The energy that causes a wave to form is called a “disturbing force.” That disturbing force in The Great Wave is hope. It’s the energy that provides the play with its organizing principle. Every scene begins with an update in time. It’s one year after the kidnapping, then six, then another seven. Decades pass and Hanako’s family hasn’t found a trace of her. Turnly keeps the audience close to her though by showing her indoctrination into a new culture. She’s forced to learn Korean. Once she’s mastered the language, Hanako is assigned a new task.
She must teach one of her captors, Jung Sun (Cindy Im), how to read, write and speak Japanese so that she can become a spy and pass as a native. As Hanako, Jo Mei credibly ages from adolescence to middle age. Mei changes her posture, hairstyles and costumes to heighten the illusion. But Mei also changes Hanako’s spirit the longer she’s trapped against her will in Korea. With every passing year, you can feel that her sense of despair is on the rise. Back at home in Japan, her family abandons almost everything except for the thought that they’ll see Hanako again.
At every shift forward in time, the government official interrogates Hanako to find out where her loyalties lie. Hanako gives the “right” answer every time, that she lives to follow their benevolent leader’s every command. But Mei silently communicates to the audience that her character has retained every ounce of her Japanese identity. Hope is the only barrier standing between this family and emotional ruin. In this case though, hope can’t fend off a government that’s gone mad with power and a singular desire for revenge.
The Great Wave, through Oct. 27 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $30-$97; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org