If Clara Breed were still around, she'd probably feel pretty good about what she'd term the federal government's domestic restraint after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Yeah, she'd say, today's airport-security measures are a bite in the butt, and the prospect of wholesale wiretaps might cost her a couple hours' sleep--but at least we're not rounding up and detaining our own citizens in a show of paranoia about Muslim extremism and the heinousness that sometimes comes with that turf.
Then again, Breed lived during World War II, when a reported 100,000 to 120,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans were interned nationwide amid the feds' fears of enemy infiltration. As you've guessed, she was dead-set against the practice, which she called as concerted a threat to democracy as America's enemies themselves.
In conjunction with the San Diego Public Library, Asian Story Theatre is staging a play about the internments called Dear Miss Breed, which chronicles the contacts Breed maintained with more than two dozen Japanese-Americans, ages 5 through 19, as they were displaced to camps at Arcadia, Calif.'s Santa Anita racetrack and at Poston, Ariz. Breed (a good Susan Hammons) is portrayed as a workingman's cause celébre, a 'Jap lover' who staunchly and unpopularly defended 'my children' and constitutional freedoms at every turn. And while this play is thin on production values and philosophy, it will likely hold some interest for local armchair historians.
That's because Breed, who died in 1994, worked for the San Diego Public Library for 42 years and was children's librarian there from 1929 to 1945. What's more, the kids she stayed in touch with were San Diegans themselves. Their letters reflect a longing for home, a distaste for the camp conditions, hopes for an American victory and gratitude for Breed's gifts--postcards, books, care packages and her fondest wishes for their safe returns.
The problems lie in the play's lack of specifics. Joanne Oppenheim's script, adapted from her book of the same title, adequately weaves the situations in and out of the narrative (there's a pretty cute scene in which one boy lets a scorpion loose among a bunch of girls). But surely, the kids' impressions of their hometown are paramount at these tender stages of their lives--yet we never really get the feeling that Oppenheim's sentiments are particular to San Diego. In a way, the same holds true for Breed. She talks a great game about the defense of democracy, but her speeches would mean so much more if we had an inkling of her background.
Oppenheim's dialogue tends to serve as its own stage direction (a cardinal sin)--and it's invariably at those points that Andy Lowe's direction tends to become too busy. But Evie Rodriguez's Katherine is unfailingly and correctly virginal, just as Enoch Wu's Jake wears his cockiness on his sleeve throughout. In any event, let's give Lowe and Asian Story Theatre its props. The group isn't one of San Diego's more prolific, but it's seized on a legitimate item, rife with ethnicity and San Diego wartime history. And while the show lacks stamina and an experienced cast, it's an earnest piece whose cultural foundations are never out of question.
This review is based on the evening preview performance of Sept. 15. Dear Miss Breed runs through Sept. 30 at the Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $5.50-$15. 619-544-1000 or www.sandiegorep.com.
Dollars and sense
The Adding Machine may have been written in 1923, but author Elmer Rice wouldn't have cared when you see it. Human estrangement, after all, is a universal and timeless theme--and with its take on this play, La Jolla Playhouse is giving Rice a reasonable voice for that contention.
It's about the emotionally bankrupt Mr. Zero (Richard Crawford), a retail-chain number cruncher displaced by an adding machine. Zero pays the ultimate price for going postal on his boss, only to find no mercy even in death. Director Daniel Aukin takes Rice's subtext-rich, expressionist bent to heart--and nowhere is that more evident than in his handling of Shrdlu, Zero's guide in the afterlife. Joshua Everett Johnson is excellent in the role, which calls for every ironical nuance he gives it.
The Playhouse is coming off two very good pieces from July and August, but those were performed by visiting companies. With The Adding Machine (which I saw at a preview), the group has mounted a sensible, if ever so mildly understated, cautionary tale about grassroots humanity and the technology that always seems to outstrip it. Not only that, Zero is an exceedingly performer-friendly role. I know this because I won a regional acting competition (and lots of beer) for my turn in the part, my second role ever. Takes a big man to admit it, but I'm tellin' ya: Crawford matched me almost stride for stride. Now, that's an accomplishment.
The Adding Machine runs through Oct. 7 at the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. $34-$60. 858-550-1010 or www.lajollaplayhouse.org.