The Gate of Heaven

Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays at Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St., through Oct. 20 (898- 6791).

Every time a new scene begins and a new date is flashed on the screen, we know we're in for one more Forrest Gump-like encounter with history.
Kyoshi Yamamoto (Lane Nishikawa), an American G.I. liberating Dachau in 1945, carries in his arms the shrunken body of a Jewish internee, Leon Ehrlich (Victor Talmadge). Ehrlich, barely clinging to life, looks up into Yamamoto's face and, seeing his Asian features, can only think that the Japanese army has arrived to finish the job the Nazis started. Yamamoto, trying to calm him, says, "I'm not Japanese, I'm an American."

That seemingly simple statement is at the heart of the issues raised in The Gate of Heaven: What does it mean to say "I'm an American?" What does being an American mean to Yamamoto: why can't people accept you as American when you were born in the United States and are fighting for your country, even while all of your relatives are imprisoned in internment camps as enemy aliens? What does being an American mean to Ehrlich (who eventually makes his way to the United States and becomes a citizen): can you ever trust your country when you can remember being the citizen of a country that exterminated every member of your family? How can you not be aware of your national, religious and racial identity -- and what does it do to a friendship (Yamamoto and Ehrlich meet up in 1955 and become friends) -- when people will stop the Caucasian on the street and ask for directions, even though he's an immigrant with a heavy accent, and not ask the Japanese American, who they assume is a tourist who doesn't speak English?

Nishikawa and Talmadge, who wrote The Gate of Heaven as a vehicle for themselves, are clearly fascinated with these issues, and have evidently done extensive research as they developed the play over the years. (The project has been in development for some time: it received its first full staging at the National Holocaust Museum in April 1995, and after a script-in-hand reading last January at the Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays, was staged at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego last spring; that production is being shown here "in association with" PFT.)

But the actors/playwrights dramatize these issues of race, ethnicity and Americanness by cramming every little bit of their research into a vapid panorama of American history since World War II.

Every time a new scene begins and a new date is flashed on the screen, we know we're in for one more Forrest Gump-like encounter with history: the Kennedy assassination, the Six-Day War, the Vietnam war, the Bicentennial, and so on, through the Reagan '80s, the Congressional internment-camp reparation hearings, and '90s downsizing.

And they respond to events in their respective (off-stage) professional and (off-stage) family lives: Yamamoto's son's Bar Mitzvah (cute); Ehrlich's relationship with an impossibly younger Argentine fiancee whose family finds him not Jewish enough, and with a newly discovered surviving cousin who finds him too Jewish. It's Same Time, Next Year with interculturalism.

Nishikawa and Talmadge are wonderful, winning, charismatic performers. And they create on stage a relationship between their characters (as they no doubt have as artistic collaborators) that is palpable to the audience.

But they deserve a better, more subtle, more textured play to perform in. The issues are there. And the images and parallels are potent (a draped tallis mirroring a flag-draped coffin, for instance).

But even such images pronounce the issues more than they dramatize them. Like the set (by Ralph Funicello, which presents an image of the gates of Dachau, flanked by the barred walls of an internment camp on one side and the stone walls of the Western Wall in Jerusalem on the other), like the music and sound design (by Michael Roth and Jeff Ladman respectively, which plays Japanese melodies on a flute, Hebraic melodies on a cello, then Japanese melodies on the cello and Hebraic melodies on the flute), and like the incessant slides, it's all just too obvious.

The ideas in Nishikawa and Talmadge's play, and the characters they portray, are much richer than the dramatic uses to which they are put.

-- Cary M. Mazer