When Rick Shiomi wrote “Yellow Fever” in 1982, neither the Canadian nor the U.S. governments had apologized for the World War II deportations that sent Japanese-Americans to internment camps. Shiomi’s parents were moved out of Vancouver into the nearby mountains, and he keenly felt the baggage of that heritage as a young man.
Thirty years later, apologies have been made, but Shiomi’s play still carries a historic message and tells us much about him. “Yellow Fever,” which opened in a Mu Performing Arts production at the Guthrie on Saturday, mixes righteous anger with a noirish sense of ironic humor. Shiomi always has been a serious artist who cloaks his gravity in self-deprecating humor.
“Yellow Fever” finds private eye Sam Shikaze (Kurt Kwan) working the crumbling nooks and crannies of Powell Street in 1973 Vancouver. The place used to be bustling, before the immigrant Japanese population was shipped off to the World War II camps. Now it’s a ghost town.
When the Cherry Blossom Queen is kidnapped, Sam gets on to the case. The cops and newspaper reporter Nancy Wing (Sara Ochs) are also in on the chase. The tug and pull of their competition lubricates the drama.
Shiomi uses the kidnapping as a stalking horse to explore deeper issues: institutional racism in the police department, Sam’s sense of alienation and Nancy’s aspirations — which could be romantic or simply professional. The ending would appear to suggest the latter.
Kwan and Ochs use a light touch as he parries her ambitions in a kind of Tracy and Hepburn style. The only nit is that Kwan and Ochs look about the same age, which makes it hard to believe his protestations that he’s too old for her.
This flirty stuff is fun, but Shiomi, who directed this production, wanted more from the play’s other key relationship: that between Sam and police captain Kadota (Eric Sharp). Kadota has made compromises to stay on the force, something Sam never would do. Their disparate paths and the frustrations of solving the kidnapping result in a heavy-handed scene in which Sharp’s overbaked Kadota and Sam talk past each other, just for the sake of argument. An elegance and poignancy get burned up in the heat.
The show, played out in a 1940s design, with set by Joseph Stanley and costumes by Kathy Kohl, has a brisk pace. Jeannie Lander does a charming take as a cafe owner who is friendly to Sam, and Brandon Ewald works through a thick Scottish accent to play a thuggish cop.
“Yellow Fever” feels its age. Yet, there is still a charm to its style and an earnest plaint in its message. In sum, it reflects its writer well.