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In 'Citizen 13559,' Innocents Abroad at Home

By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Rich orange. Saffron yellow. Deep blue. The colors that flood the backdrop of "Citizen 13559: The Journal of Ben Uchida" symbolize one of this new play's unnerving insights: that in an instant, familiar reality can mutate into something strange and frightening.

That's what happens to Ben Uchida, 12, and his family when they and other Japanese Americans are forced into a World War II internment camp. "Sometimes your whole life changes in a flash," Ben writes in his journal after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. ". . . You can see it in people's eyes. It's like even the air around you changes."

Ben's encounter with this truth -- and with the realities of war and prejudice -- unfurls briskly at the Kennedy Center Family Theater in Naomi Iizuka's hour-long play for children, based on the book by Barry Denenberg. Linked with chatty narration by the amiable Ben (Jon Norman Schneider), blunt but usually poignant scenes chronicle the Uchida family members' ordeal: their bewildered realization that they are suddenly aliens in their own country; their dazed attempts to pack; their receipt of an anonymous identification number, 13559; their arrival at the Mirror Lake Internment Camp, where they battle dust and roaches, surrounded by desert and barbed wire.

The dramatic shape of Iizuka's script doesn't feel wholly satisfying -- the climax, sad as it is, doesn't pack quite enough punch, and the denouement seems somewhat abrupt, as though a penultimate scene were missing. And sometimes the play tracks situational ironies with a baldness that might make adult viewers impatient -- such as the montage of voices reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Still, sandwiched into what might otherwise be a too-efficient history lesson are some welcome moments of lyricism and mystery, including sequences that make graceful use of big-band music and a plot twist that hints at a ghost story.

As directed by Chay Yew, the production presents characters who have incisive personalities. Nelson Mashita, in particular, brings a dash of tragic grandeur to the role of Ben's father, Masao Uchida, a quiet optometrist and backyard astronomer who cannot cope when his beloved America disowns him.

With his animated face and excited preteen mannerisms, Schneider makes Ben an expressive protagonist. Jeanne Sakata underscores the fragility of Ben's mother, Haruko Uchida, and Mia Whang is convincingly rebellious as Ben's elder sister, Naomi, who has to explain to Ben that the camp they are traveling to is not like summer camp. Parker Dixon and Susan Lynskey, in various roles, artfully round out the ensemble.

When not suffusing the backdrop with chromatics, Martha Mountain's lighting adopts a theatrical, shadow-rich approach that emphasizes the Uchida family's isolation (although it occasionally makes the stage look a tad far away). Otherwise, the visual aesthetic is stark and presentational, as perhaps befits a memory play, with the set consisting largely of wooden chairs that configure to evoke various locations. Strands of wire and a fabric desert backdrop complete the vista in the internment-camp scenes, and set designer Myung Hee Cho is also responsible for the effective period costumes.

Matt Nielson's terrific sound design brings the rest of Ben's world to life: When the Uchidas take the train to the camp, you can hear the landscape change, because of subtle shifts in the sounds of wind and wheels on track.

The effects suggest distance, and certainly Mirror Lake Internment Camp feels remote. Yet international conflicts wracking our current world brings the plight of the Uchidas close to home.

Citizen 13559: The Journal of Ben Uchida, adapted by Naomi Iizuka from the book by Barry Denenberg. Directed by Chay Yew. Approximately one hour. Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Family Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org .

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