Review: After the Earthquake, a ‘Room’ Haunted by Memories

Posted May 21, 2018 5:21 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Two people sharing a bright, clean room: Kazuki, a still, silent man in stocking feet, and Honoka, a cheerful, chatty, barefoot woman who roams the space, tracing and retracing the minutiae of her memories — or maybe his. She, too, is a memory, the ghost of the wife who once lived here with him.

“Remember?” she keeps asking him. “Remember?”

At last he answers: “I remember.” And this is the root of his distress.

In “Time’s Journey Through a Room,” by Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada, Kazuki (Kensaku Shinohara) is a young man dazed and numbed by his own sadness, still stunned by his wife’s death the year before. In the middle of the night, four days after an earthquake caused the Fukushima nuclear disaster, she died horribly and unexpectedly of an asthma attack.

The thing about that timing — the thing that makes this stark and quiet play such an arresting portrait of trauma and its aftermath — is that Honoka (Yuki Kawahisa, in a beautiful central performance) died happy, still caught up in the exhilaration of having survived that calamity. She marvels now at the petty banality of the fight the two of them had just before it struck.

“That is how I spent my time before the earthquake,” she says. “Isn’t it incredible, this feeling of nostalgia you feel when you think back on yourself from before your transformation?”

Her sunniness may not be entirely unclouded; talking, it emerges, calms her down. Yet even in death, she remains possessed of the thrilling optimism that can take hold in the wake of devastation: the certainty that people will respond by uniting in a new and powerful way, that this event marks the emphatic end of business as usual.

“Tell me,” she says to Kazuki, almost childlike in the innocence of her happiness, “how has everyone begun to help each other? I want to hear all the stories. Tell me what it’s like now that the world has changed into something so wonderful that we couldn’t even imagine it before the earthquake.”

Kazuki, of course, has no such stories. He has kept on living, and so have most of the others who came through that time. For them, any evanescent illusion of societal metamorphosis has long since dissolved, along with the emotional intensity of that moment.

What he is left with is a grief etched so deeply into him — and into this room that was their haven — that he doesn’t trust his own impulses when he invites a woman, Arisa (Maho Honda), to visit him there. He is attracted to her, he says, but maybe he is pursuing her out of weakness: his inability to get through life alone.

“Time’s Journey” is a response to the Fukushima disaster, and the striking sensory evocation that begins the performance (lights by Amith Chandrashaker, sound by Mikaal Sulaiman, set by Anna Kiraly, all excellent) ensures that we make the connection. The translation, by Aya Ogawa, helps with that, too; fluid as it is, it does not feel like American speech.

This is part of what makes “Time’s Journey” — the third work by Okada that Dan Rothenberg has directed for the Play Company — feel very different from the most recent of those collaborations, “The Sonic Life of a Giant Tortoise,” in 2014. So does the casting. The actors in “Time’s Journey,” all based in New York, were born in Japan.

“Time’s Journey” is more than a reflection on a single catastrophe, though. Told in fragments that come together gradually, it is a chronicle of healing, with all its pain and awkward humor and halting steps.

We know from the beginning, because Arisa tells us, that she will become Kazuki’s girlfriend. We watch it happen incrementally, in stilted conversation and silent tableaus.

Yet still there is Honoka, weaving gracefully through the room, gently demanding her husband’s attention. “I know you can hear me,” she says. But for how long?

Event Information:

‘Time’s Journey Through a Room’

Through June 10 at A.R.T./New York Theaters, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, playco.org.

Running time: 1 hour.