Laurel Mill Playhouse has gone into the vault for its latest production. Starting this weekend, the theater company resurrects 1953’s “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” written by John Patrick and based on the 1951 novel by Vern Sneider.
The show, which centers on a U.S. military captain, Capt. Fisby (Eric Henry) tasked with Americanizing the town of Tobiki on the island of Okinawa shortly after the conclusion of World War II, enjoyed much success after its debut on Broadway in 1953.
In 1954, the play won the New York Drama Critics Award for Best American Play of the Year, the Pulitzer in Drama and a Tony Award. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the show, with much of its humor rooted in culture clashes and misunderstandings, began to seem outdated.
Now, 60 years later, Laurel Mill director Mark Allen believes “The Teahouse of the August Moon,” has once again become relevant.
“I was involved in a production [of ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’] in high school ... [and] had always remembered it with a great deal of fondness,” Allen said. “I had some discussion with [Laurel Mill] about what show to direct this year and pulled this script out ... The message in it still had some relevance for today.”
Allen said he sees a resemblance between “Plan B,” the procedure put in place by Capt. Fisby’s commanding officer, Col. Purdy, and American foreign policy today. “Plan B” aims to Americanize the natives of Tobiki through the democratic election of politicians, the construction of a school building (in the shape of a pentagon) and the establishment of capitalism.
“I see a lot of parallels with some of the mistakes made in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Allen said. “We’ve been struggling with the issue since the Spanish-America War. We are so confident that we have the one right way that we forget there might be other ways of doing things ... We can’t just take middle class America and plop it down. We need to consider the needs and desires of locals to actually accomplish stuff.”
As Capt. Fisby tries — and fails — to implement “Plan B,” he finds himself instead adopting the ways of life of the locals, including accepting a Geisha Girl, Lotus Blossom, played by newcomer Natesha Vaillancourt.
“His personal arch is going from a guy who feels inept into a job where he ultimately ends up shining because he can relate to people,” Henry said. “Essentially, he ends up going native in a lot of ways.”
On top of the challenge of acting in her first production, Vaillancourt also had to learn another language. All of Lotus Blossom’s lines are in Japanese.
“The biggest challenge hasn’t been memorizing the Japanese,” said Vaillancourt, who works as a midwife and nurse practitioner in Washington, D.C. “But it was saying it how someone would actually say it. [Learning] to say it fluidly.”
While “The Teahouse of the August Moon” tackles sensitive topics like cross-culture relations and assimilation, Allen said the playwright does so with humor and without evoking stereotypes.
“It’s done in a very gentle way,” Allen said. “The original author of the novel had a good appreciation for the Asian culture. There is a lot of reality in the characters ... and if you try to bring them to life as people rather than caricatures, it gets around the aspect of [stereotypes].”
“The Teahouse of the August Moon” actors agree that despite the play’s age, the message still rings true.
“It hasn’t aged badly at all,” said Henry, who added that the play’s central message about acceptance remains as important today as it was in the 1950s.
“You don’t know what people are like until you’re there,” Henry said. “Which I think is a message that is very relevant.”
“[It’s about] giving people and things you don’t know a chance,” added Vaillancourt. “ ... And I think that will resonate with everyone.”