Noble in its themes but flawed in construction, playwright Yilong Liu’s heartfelt Asian-American family drama, June Is The First Fall is well acted and finely presented. Despite being in development for four years and having a dramaturg, odd vagaries abound undercutting the play’s achievements. Still, there are lovely flourishes such as a Chekhovian ritual of celebrating the Mid-Autumn Festival early with mooncakes, other cultural touches, and exhibits of emotion.
Having left his family ten years earlier on acrimonious terms due to conflicts over his sexuality and to go away to college, the gay Don Chin is back for a visit. He has been living in New York City and has returned to the outskirts of Honolulu, Hawaii. His hard working father David owns a thriving Chinese restaurant and had a heart attack a year earlier. Don’s stalwart older sister Jane has been romantically involved for quite a while and lives with Scott, a cheery yet troubled adopted Caucasian whom Don had an adolescent attraction to, and who works for the family concern. Yu Qin, Don’s deceased mother appears in flashbacks, in dreams and as an imaginary figure. The Chin family home has been sold and soon they will move to quarters closer to the restaurant. Apart from richly charting these figures Mr. Liu offers little in the way of actual plot. It’s essentially a character study frustratingly devoid of basic specifics.
In 90 minutes, we’re never told what Don’s occupation is, that he went to an “East Coast college” is cryptically mentioned, and his gay identity is detailed only by a cursory description of his long-term and now faltering involvement with a gay male married couple with two children where he is the third wheel. Nothing is said about being a gay Asian in relation to the milieu of gay Manhattan. Don is more cipher than hero.
That personal revelation about the contorted relationship occurs during a passionate exchange with his father who is trying to be supportive, but his traditional sensibility intrudes. The play is jolted by this confrontation which takes place an hour into it.
There is bitterness because David was in the United States working for five years before he could send for Don and his mother and Jane from China. Yu Qin’s death is sketchily cited as having been because of a pedestrian car accident following Don’s coming out, so that possible guilt looms but isn’t really concretely demarcated.
Much is made of Don’s having been away for ten years but why he has now come back is not explained. The fantasy elements are not fully integrated and come across as distractions. Mr. Liu’s dialogue is poetically flavorful, but this is not enough to carry such a faulty work to being a completely satisfying experience. The last 30 minutes are quite effective, offering a glimpse of the play’s potential.
The personable Alton Alburo as Don manages to make this underdeveloped character compelling with his charming presence. Playing his father David with easygoing humor and poignancy is the outstanding Fenton Li. Stefani Kuo as Jane offers a winning portrait of familial sturdiness with her solid performance. Scott is vividly brought to life by Karsten Otto with his engaging blend of goofiness and soulfulness. Mr. Otto brings much depth to his scenes with Mr. Alburo regarding Don’s feelings for him. Speaking mostly in Chinese and existing as a domineering vision, Chun Cho does achieve a pleasing distinctiveness in the difficult role of Yu Qin.
In addition to steering these sensitive performances, director Michael Leibenluft’s staging is technically accomplished with scenes fluidly flowing to various locations and time periods with clarity.
Tropical foliage surrounds scenic designer Jean Kim’s detailed living room that magically places us in Hawaii with authenticity. Cha See’s lively lighting design conveys reality and dreaminess with flair. Sound designer Michael Costagliola adds to the atmospherics with rich effects. The characters are fully realized by costume designer An-lin Dauber’s excellent array of contemporary casualwear.
Though uneven, June Is The First Fall does have its merits and the dramatic novelty of its subject matter.
June Is The First Fall (through April 20, 2019)
Yangtze Repertory Theatre of America
New Ohio Theatre, 154 Christopher Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.yzrep.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission