The folks at the new McLean Drama Company are a bit sensitive on the subject of titles. Their promotional materials carry a warning not to confuse their world premiere play, "Return to Vietnam," with "Madam Butterfly" or especially "Miss Saigon."
Judge for yourself. "Return to Vietnam" is a preachy soap opera about two lovers, a Vietnamese woman and an American pilot, separated during the messy American pullout from Saigon in 1975. She is pregnant; he is unaware. Twenty-five years later, he returns to Vietnam in search of his paramour and finds she had wed an older man with whom she raised her Amerasian daughter and is now an important communist government official. OK, the twist about being a communist is different. So if we called it "Miss Hanoi" would we get into trouble?
McLean playwright Rachael Bail has a lot to say and squeezes much of it into one story. The theater program promises that the play "combines romance, war, politics." Some combination. Lovers spout political slogans instead of whispering sweet nothings, the plotlines accommodate the history lesson instead of drama, and much of the dialogue is didactic.
Further dooming the effort is the awkward, amateurish performance level, especially the egregious miscasting of an actor unable to handle drama as the leading man. Bail, also credited as producer, should have insisted that two sets of actors be cast as the lovers. The leading man seems 30 years too old for the early scenes, and the leading lady seems 25 years too young for the later scenes.
Director Michael Stepowany seems confused by it all, frequently moving the actors meaninglessly about the large Alden Theatre stage. For instance, in a scene in which the mother confesses to her America-hating half-American daughter that their tall visitor from New York is the younger woman's father, Stepowany places them at opposite ends of the stage, draining intimacy and emotion from the moment as they call to each other across a vast, empty space. The play finally sputters to an end so inconclusive that on opening night the cast was halfway through curtain calls before the audience realized the performance was over and began applauding politely.
Basic story lines don't make sense. We see the Vietnamese woman, clutching her suitcase and pregnant, trying mightily but failing to get through the U.S. Embassy gate and to the helicopter that is supposed to take her to a U.S. ship and the beginning of her journey to America with her lover. She is bereft. But we later discover she was a proud, patriotic communist spy at that time. So why was she so eager to leave for America? And her biracial daughter buys the lie that an ancient general is her father, never noticing her own appearance? Suspending belief is part of the theater experience, but entirely suspending common sense is not. At least Bail crafted a story in which the Asian woman is not a victim: This butterfly has teeth, shrewd, commie teeth, and she is very much in control. And the company deserves credit for filling the stage with actors of Asian heritage, unlike Arlington's Signature Theatre, which cast not a single Asian American in its current production of "Pacific Overtures," which is set entirely in Japan.
Except for the extensive sound design, which was sloppily orchestrated on opening night (please fade sounds; don't chop them off), and dreadful makeup (no black lines painted on foreheads to denote age, please) the major production elements for "Return to Vietnam" are first-rate. Michael George Hartley's minimalist, stylized set, anchored by semitransparent screens resembling fans, superbly evokes an Eastern ambiance, and his imaginative, dynamic lighting provides magnificent accents. Lynn-Phuong Frazier and Melody Yok choreographed and perform charming Eastern-themed movement to punctuate scenes and build ambiance. The show looks great, but "Return to Vietnam" needs a return to the writer's keyboard.
"Return to Vietnam" concludes this weekend, performed by the McLean Drama Company at the Alden Theatre of the McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave. Showtime is 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday with a 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinee. For information, call 703-790-0123. Tickets can be purchased (in-person only) at the Alden Theatre box office, or by visiting www.ticketmaster.com/venue/172035.
In "Return to Vietnam," a Vietnamese woman is reunited with the U.S. pilot who fathered her child during the war.
Playwright Rachael Bail's "Return to Vietnam" is being staged through Sunday at the McLean Community Center's Alden Theatre. My Thi (Iliana Inocencio) tries to leave for America, but is turned away from the U.S. Embassy.