When Nagasaki-based Catholic priest Father Hashimoto (Thom Sesma) dies, his grand-niece Melody Park (Ali Ahn) is conscripted to pay family respects. The funeral is large. He was revered. She arrives home to Seattle with a box containing 10 years correspondence from American Suresh Thakur (Ramiz Montsef) and a complicated origami bird.
In hopes of sending the letters back to their author, Melody writes to the return address. Great Uncle Hashimoto is as much a stranger as his pen pal. The letters prove irresistibly intriguing. Her mother wants them read aloud. Unwilling to violate his privacy, Melody writes to Suresh again. Silence. “Dear Suresh has become like entering a password,” she reflects. Finally shared, the missives have a remarkable effect on her parents.
Rajiv Joseph’s immensely eloquent play is a jigsaw puzzle in which the box of letters provides little more hint to overall image than a rectangle of color. (Suresh sees color only when he’s fully engaged. Otherwise the world is grey and brown.) Four unwittingly symbiotic stories of estrangement are played out in solo vignettes, gradually creating a picture.
We first meet Suresh as an extremely smart teenager bored with school. His only interest seems to be inventing origami folding, yet he takes even that for granted. A teacher arranges for him to apprentice to Master of the art, Amelia Wren (Kellie Overbey). She takes him to a convention in Nagasaki where he encounters Father Hashimoto at a shrine for children killed in the WWII bombing. Watercolor-like projections and wafting music create a meditative atmosphere.
When the boy returns to Boston, he writes to the priest. They begin to correspond, but Father Hashimoto’s goodwill arrives couched in religious terms that alienate Suresh. “I’m not a good boy! Jesus didn’t help me fold that bird!” Time passes. Origami segues into engineering. “Everything folds,” the hero notes. (Even history.) Suresh begins to write to the Father once more. His religion is science; his employment choice, inexplicable- in fact, the one element of this play that doesn’t fit.
In search of connection, the protagonist wrecks a marriage, then quits his high level job returning humbly once again to Nagasaki. Like Larry Darrell in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, he continues a quest for his “place.” Suresh learns and speaks Japanese (translations are projected).
Both Melody and Amelia face their own severed connections and uncertain futures. The letters link them. At the end, we hear from Hashimoto himself through a last, unsent message and learn what loss drew him to Suresh. “I know you have doubts about your choices…”
Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj were highly original glimpses at universal themes played out in exotic locale. Even featuring Japan, this piece feels more familiar and contemporary. Still, the journey waits to be taken.
May Adrales’ direction is specific to each solo character from physicality to vocal rhythm.
Acting is excellent with Ramiz Monself a stand-out whether playing 18 or 30-something, an age difference that visibly evolves. It feels as if we’re watching him struggle and think. Thom Sesma’s Hashimoto exudes calm. He speaks as if English is a second language.
Sound design and original music by Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts and lighting design by Jiyoun Chang couch the story in poetic rumination. I found the projections too often Hallmark.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening Photo: Ramiz Montsef
Letters of Suresh by Rajiv Joseph
With Ali Ahn, Ramiz Monsef, Kellie Overbey, Thom Sesma
Directed by May Adrales
Second Stage at The Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd Street
Letters of Suresh is the recipient of an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award. The play was commissioned with support from the Time Warner Foundation.