Opened just over 40 years ago, the Washington Mall’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial is now one of the most popular attractions in the United States. But many may not recall the controversy that almost derailed the prize winning design by 21-year-old Yale University student Maya Lin. Pan Asian Repertory Theatre’s production of Livian Yeh’s Memorial is as clean and spare as the design in its writing, acting and physical production. There is not an extra, wasted word in its dialogue. This riveting and incisive drama may just be the best new play of the season bar none.
Beginning with Maya’s design being chosen in 1981 before she had even taken her license to be certified as an architect, the play succinctly covers the controversy that followed her “untraditional” concept: condemnation of the choice based on her gender (as a woman), ethnicity (as a Chinese American) and age (a college student of 21) were all used as insults against her. After the committee made their choice from 1,421 submissions, veterans, donors, members of Congress and the general public rallied to keep her design from being built by hurling insulting and bigoted remarks at her (the untruth that her parents had been Communists in China, she had slanty eyes, she was called an egg roll, etc.) People complained that its black granite would clash with the other white marble monuments on the Mall and that it looked like a slash in the meadow. Others thought that it would be too dark as it caused the viewer to travel down into the earth to see the full list of names, all of which was part of its calculated effect.
And then a suggestion is raised to compromise and add a statue of three servicemen to the design against Maya’s objections. It is amazing now that her plan was ever instituted and completed in 1982. As she tells us, if her ethnicity had been known to the committee when they were choosing, she probably would not have had any chance of winning. Ironically Maya Lin’s aunt had designed the memorial in Tiananmen Square in Beijing but by sticking closely to the government’s wishes, she had had little trouble in getting hers built. However, as she died soon afterwards, it did not forward her career.
Memorial is complemented by a physical production which is as spare and pure as Lin’s design. Sheryl Liu’s beautiful setting is made up of 11 panels which are used as both walls and video screens and eventually the panels of the memorial. This stands above a wedge-shaped platform which follows the shape of each half of the site’s structure. The lovely projection design by Gregory Casparian uses falling cherry blossoms on the Potomac, abstract structures of the memorial as it is being built, the windows of Maya’s Washington, D.C. apartment, and ultimately the black granite panels of the completed project. Karen Boyer’s costumes reflect the simplicity and spareness of the set often putting the characters in solid colors with a limited palette.
Playwright Yeh has kept the complex story down to five characters: aside from Maya, there is Colonel James Becker, the Vietnam veteran who has initiated the project; influential Washington Post art and architecture critic Wolf von Eckhart who was on the selection committee; famed landscape architect Hideo Sasaki who Maya Lin needed to sign off on her design as she was not yet licensed to practice; and her mother Julia Lin, a poet and professor of English and Chinese literature. According to notes by the author the portrayals of the real Maya Lin, von Eckhart, Sasaki and Julia Lin have been fictionalized, while the character of Colonel Becker is an amalgamation of several real-life veterans who were influential in bringing the project to fruition.
As the central character of Maya Lin, Angel Lin (replaced by Nancy Ma from Feb. 10 – 19) is suitably callow and idealistic as the young and intense college student. Robert Meksin as Wolf von Eckhart, who fled Berlin from the Nazis in the 1930’s and sought refuge in the U.S., is a man of integrity and shrewdness who will to fight for his beliefs. As the Japanese American landscape artist, Glenn Kubota is an enigmatic man of few words who is still bitter after being incarcerated in the western U.S. during World War II while he was in college. Rachel Lu makes Maya’s mother speak in philosophical epigrams and often has a hidden meaning to her pithy pronouncements. Playing the most complicated character, Colonel James Becker, James Patrick Nelson gives a layered performance as a man not in touch with his own emotions. Credit director Jeff Liu with keeping all of these disparate characters in tune with each other and the elegant and refined style of the play.
Not only is Livian Yeh’s Memorial revealing in its historic depiction of a recent piece of American history, it is additionally a very satisfying dramatic work. It is also very pertinent now with its depiction of racism against Asians shown to have been just as prevalent 40 years ago, as well as how deeply ingrained our unexpressed prejudices go. Jeff Liu’s direction mines all of the play’s nuances, twists and turns. The superb design adds greatly to bringing the play to life, suggesting more than is actually on the stage. With this world premiere, the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre has a current winner as well as a play that should travel well to other theaters around the country.
Memorial (through February 19, 2023)
Pan Asian Repertory Theatre
Mezzanine Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres
502 W. 53rd Street, West of 10th Avenue, 2nd Floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.panasianrep.org
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission