Fifty years ago, a film called Hiroshima Mon Amour caused a sensation at the Cannes Film Festival and helped usher in the French New Wave with its passionate story of first love, memory, and survival during and after World War II. Playwright Chiori Miyagawa seeks to both burrow inside this legendary, controversial film and critique it with her new 90-minute piece, I Have Been to Hiroshima Mon Amour, now at the Ohio Theater. Unfortunately the result doesn’t satisfy as a whole, as its powerful and provocative ideas are often undercut by its underwhelming performances.
In the movie, a French actress with a tortured past and a Japanese architect have an intense and star-crossed romance in the Japanese city 14 years after the end of the war. The bomb wiped out the man’s family, along with tens of thousands of others, some of whom are seen in jarring documentary footage at the beginning of the film as silent, noble victims of history’s first atomic assault, but the focus is on the couple’s drama.
Miyagawa is interested in a more complex rendering of the historic events of World War II, and she attempts to achieve that in several ways. Most notably, she humanizes the Hiroshima victims by giving them a voice and showing their more complicated sides. She gives a stirring monologue to the Japanese woman (who literally haunts the piece) in which she describes the moment that she was vaporized on that August morning in 1945. The playwright also deconstructs the original screenplay by reenacting some of the love scenes, occasionally and randomly substituting the Japanese woman for the Japanese man. And she rewrites and rearranges key scenes from the film, bringing in various viewpoints along the way.
Perhaps the strongest section of the play is one in which the actors portray contemporary New Yorkers sitting around a living room debating the classic film before and after viewing it. The Japanese-American woman is heavily critical of what she considers the movie’s racial and historic insensitivities. The Caucasian woman praises it as a work of high art. Issues that have revolved around the film for half a century are revived and honestly appraised: Who has a right to certain memories? Does love, as one character suggests, transcend the crimes of war? Or do the horrors of war outmatch even the most everlasting passion, as another declares in a separate monologue? Meanwhile, the man, who has never seen the film before, is more interested in how the two women think of him personally.
As intriguing as many of the playwright’s concepts are, they are undermined by a cast — directed by Jean Wagner — who don’t quite connect to their roles or to each other. The performances of Joel de la Fuente and Juliana Francis-Kelly may be intended to be a mere comment on the film’s central romance but, in order to do that effectively, they still need a certain chemistry that they lack. Sue Jean Kim fares only a little better with her ghostly utterances. And all three actors look awkward and halting in the evening’s occasional movement passages, which are choreographed by Hillary Spector. They do, however, possess some nice comic timing.
The production is well-supported by its design team. Glenn Reed’s simple set is dominated by eight screens that not only catch Hap Tivey’s poetic projection images, but also reconfigure into effective playing areas. Hanging overheard are several sets of metallic-looking support beams that suggest the famous ruins of the Peace Dome in Hiroshima, while far upstage are charred stones arranged as in a museum. Rick Martin’s evocative lighting also works well with Du Yun’s sound design.