There’s powerful themes running through Snow in Midsummer, adapted by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig from a thirteenth-century Chinese drama to place that play’s revenge narrative and ghost story in modern-day industrial rural China: the impossibility and necessity of justice, and the way that unacknowledged injustice corrupts the very fabric of a community; generational trauma and generational violence, especially as they affect women. Cowhig and director Zi Alikhan bring a lot of richness to the play’s details, especially in the ghost story aspects, which feel genuinely menacing and unsettling. But there’s so much going on so much of the time that the whole can feel less than the sum of its parts: unfocused and diffuse, softening the impact of both its political critiques and its character arcs.
The Zhang family has long run the town of New Harmony, a company town in the province north of Shanghai that’s centered around their factories. But after the murder three years ago of Master Zhang (Kenneth Lee), his son, Handsome (John Yi), is much more interested in getting the hell out of New Harmony, especially now that he’s in love, planning to move overseas with his fiancé, Rocket (Tommy Bo). Rocket and Handsome are also both desperate to escape the drought that began after the execution of Dou Yi (Dorcas Leung), the woman who confessed to Master Zhang’s murder–but swore before she died that a three-year drought and snow falling in June would follow her death and testify to her innocence. Handsome is selling the businesses to Tianyun Lin (Teresa Avia Lim), a self-made woman with a young adopted daughter, Fei Fei (Fin Moulding). But on the eve of the deal being signed, Fei Fei starts to talk about a “snow girl”; her mother thinks this is an imaginary friend, but it starts to become clear that Fei Fei is being haunted by a ghost: the executed alleged murderer, whose soul cries out for justice. As the relentless drought causes the town to be evacuated and abandoned to the desert, everything threatens to fall apart, and a web of connections among the characters begins to be revealed: Between Handsome, Master Zhang, and Handsome’s wet nurse (now bar owner), Nurse Wong (Wai Ching Ho). Between Tianyun, Dou Yi, and Dou Yi’s adoptive mother (Wai Ching Ho). Between Handsome, Rocket, the town doctor (Kenneth Lee), and Dou Yi. All are implicated in the events that have eaten away at the collective soul.
Cowhig’s script covers a lot of ground: a critique of rapacious industrial capitalism, a depiction of the ravages of climate change, an argument about the intersectionality of gender and poverty, a scathing depiction of the ubiquity of sexual assault, a glimpse of the corruption of local Chinese governments and institutions, all alongside a plot larded with ghosts, murders, black-market organ transplants, family secrets about parentage, corruption in the justice system, and the curse plaguing New Harmony. She does a meticulous job weaving all the elements together into a narrative that can contain them all, albeit one that hinges on a series of plot twists and coincidences that underscore her themes. But the sweep comes at the expense of clarity: the overwhelming and intricate detail, down to small arcs for multiple sets of tertiary characters, can make it hard to figure out what’s most important and how the interwoven pieces of the multiple plot strands intersect.
The piece also plays with layering different genres–murder mystery melds with ghost story; a peek into the afterlife juxtaposed with an expose of corruption; social-realist depiction of the unraveling of a small town alongside a tender queer romance and a few scenes of ribald comedy; flashbacks and present-day scenes; small subplots for both a set of three policemen and a set of three factory workers fighting the evacuation of the town–which aren’t much distinguished tonally in director Zi Alikhan’s production. Rather than creating an integrated whole, the unity of tone sometimes adds to the confusion, especially at times when the three-quarter-round stage setup makes it difficult to hear the actors. (The work Cowhig and the actors Paul Juhn, Julian Leong, and Alex Vinh do to create well-rounded minor characters is terrific, but with so many of them, they start to feel like a distraction.)
The production elements, too, can be murky: the scenic design by dots is streamlined and allows for fluidity from scene to scene, but it’s so stripped down that it’s hard to read its brown palette as conveying drought’s dusty dryness rather than a basic wood-toned neutrality; it doesn’t convey much about the location or the desperation of the drought. And while Johanna Pan’s costumes add visual interest, they go in some puzzling directions.
Two of the strands stuck with me most deeply: The supernatural elements come through strongly and with impact. Alikhan is at his most effective when dealing with the ghost; Dorcas Leung’s living Dou Yi speaks passionately against the injustice done to her, but her ghost Dou Yi is genuinely unsettling, with a snaky movement quality. Alikhan makes the ghost omnipresent; when she’s possessing the young Fei Fei, she’s crawling on the floor underneath Fei Fei and echoing her lines. And the drumbeat of the harm done to women–sexual assault, unwanted children, stolen children, the violence done by and because of trauma–is a constant throb; Teresa Avia Lim and Wai Ching Ho are at their strongest in the moments they look back on the traumas their characters have endured.
There’s an ongoing lament through Snow in Midsummer that all the living plants of the town have dried up and crumbled in the drought. But the production as a whole still feels a little like a forest choked with underbrush–the trees are strong and powerful, but it’s hard to see them.