Kimono my house

Shedding the Tiger

Takayo Fischer, June Angela in <i>Shedding the Tiger</i>.

Takayo Fischer, June Angela in Shedding the Tiger.

Rated 3.0

There’s a tradition in Japan—seldom observed nowadays, but still hovering in the nation’s consciousness—that an old-style, kimono-clad wife should always walk half a step behind her husband.

There’s also a modern, pop-culture term for the “salaryman” husband, who gets on the train at dawn and comes home late, after the kids have gone to bed. The children refer to him as the “weekend guest,” because that’s the only time they see him.

These concepts underlie Velina Hasu Houston’s new play, Shedding the Tiger, which is getting its premiere at the Sacramento Theatre Company. (STC also presented Houston’s Kokoro last year, and is currently featuring a one-act by Houston in Millennium Monologues. Peggy Shannon, who directs Tiger, also did another Houston play at UC Davis last year.)

Houston’s plays always seem to function on multiple levels. In Tiger, the characters and plot are interwoven with an extensive agenda of social commentary, as Houston (whose mother is Japanese) critiques the problems and paradoxes of carrying traditional Japanese values into modern urban life. Houston’s observations are accurate, but the delivery is sometimes heavy-handed, and Japanese husbands take a lot of lumps (as they often do in current Japanese fiction).

The story revolves around Minako Sakurai, an affluent Kyoto woman (something like an upper-class Bostonian) who is something of a princess. She orders dresses in frowzy French styles, talks about her annual trips to Europe and takes care to point out that her daughter is in an exclusive preschool. Minako is, of course, dismayed when she discovers that the wife next door is actually Korean (even though she was born in Japan).

Minako also strives to be an old-style wife. When her husband is away on business, she gives him a wake-up call at 5 a.m., “because waking up is very personal for him.” She also rearranges her schedule when her husband calls unexpectedly and asks her to bring lunch—tender octopus, because if it’s too chewy it “hurts his teeth.” She maintains that she would quit her job in advertising (even though she’s getting a better salary than her husband) if he asked her to.

The husband (who is also a symbol of the Japanese economy) is never seen, and participates only as a negative offstage influence. Perhaps it’s just as well. In her five plays staged locally, Houston seems to have the same problem that afflicted John Steinbeck: difficulty creating well-rounded characters of the opposite gender.

What we get instead are four female characters talking about their problems with men, and the not-so-white-lies they maintain in order to get along within the expectations of Japanese society. In these sisterly dialogues, Houston takes down Minako’s old-style attitudes about marriage, nationality and race again and again, with something bordering on glee. But in the process, Houston diminishes the sense of tragedy as Minako’s pride, persistent self-deception and denial lead to a multifaceted crisis that overwhelms her. Houston also rattles the bones in the family closet with a last-act revelation that borders on the melodramatic.

Houston’s points about Japanese society are on the mark, but her play might rise to an even higher level artistically if she let her characters go completely off leash midway through.

Even so, it’s a story that works and contains a lot of truth. I’ve certainly met people who are very much like the characters in this play. The production is enhanced by the attractive-yet-spare set, thoughtful lighting, sound design and costumes. The cast is excellent—Takayo Fischer is particularly good. And director Peggy Shannon, who excels with dramas that have all-female casts, is in her element.