Snow Falling on Cedars

It’s hard to accept wrinkles and rips and heartaches and stains. We hold so tight to the way things are. Yet over time, disappointment will find us, and perhaps a thief or two. Moths will consume our finest wool. Those we love will let us down. Rust will nibble the shine from our baubles.

It’s easy to get stuck in wanting things to be the old way, wanting them never to be different. In the Portland Center Stage production of Snow Falling on Cedars, Ishmael (played by Vince Nappo), can’t move on with his reality. He can’t accept the pain of losing his first love, Hatsue (Olivia Oguma), a Japanese girl. She has made the difficult decision to end their relationship. For, unlike Ishmael, Hatsue can look beyond her pain and accept reality for what it is. In that war-torn land of the 1940’s, laden with prejudices, an interracial marriage would sever family ties and set them up for a life of isolation.

It was bittersweet to see Ishmael and Hatsue laughing and leaping as children (charmingly played by Nappo and Oguma) picking strawberries or digging for clams on their Pacific Northwest island home. They fell in love only to watch the threads of their lives unravel into separateness. It was a reality Ishmael could not accept.

Ishmael goes on to fight in the second world war, and in doing so, loses an arm. Life has betrayed him. He blames the Japanese. Most of all, whether it makes sense or not, he blames Hatsue.

Hatsue, however, makes the most of her reality. She marries the self-contained, quiet Kabuo, a Japanese man (Bruce Locke, in a striking performance). Although blessed by her family, this marriage takes place amid the degrading shambles of the internment camp where they have been forced to wait out the war years.

When we can’t accept reality, we blame others. We make excuses. Frozen in time, our hearts freeze as well. We end up hurting those around us.

When Hatsue’s husband is accused of murder, Ishmael holds crucial information that could alter the trial. A man crippled by pain, Ishmael has the power to cripple an entire family, causing his beloved Hatsue’s children to grow up fatherless. There are so many lessons, joys and wisdoms to be gained in this beautiful production based on the novel by David Guterson. I could almost smell the nubbly cedar branches as I sat in the quiet of the Gerding Theatre (a few rows behind Guterson, in fact). I could almost feel the rainy mist.

I love a story that gives me something to live by. Like the moss quickly greening our cabin roof in these winter northwest rains, life changes fast, breaking things down. Patience, I tell myself. Things will change. Internment camps have been torn down. New prejudices, unfortunately, have arisen. With love and patience and stories we will ride out every change.

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