Several years ago, I caught the tail end of an NPR news snippet about Korean comfort women seeking redress from the Japanese government for atrocities committed against them during World War II. Kidnapped and relocated to "houses of relaxation," the women were forced to become whores for the Japanese military, enduring years of rape and physical abuse. To this day, the Japanese have coldly refused to admit their culpability for these crimes or others, such as the Rape of Nanking or horrendous, Nazi-like medical experiments.
Amanda DeMaio saw a similar report on television, and it spurred her to action: she wrote Unrelenting Relaxation, a powerhouse play about four prostituted women and the female doctor who tries to help them any way she can, even if it's just to help them die. And an elegant work it is, too. Without a single bloodied body or slogan, DeMaio, who also directs, has crafted the most graceful and compelling anti-war piece I've ever seen.
Aided by Jon Gaw and Kirk Huff's minimalist set, sound and lighting—thin white curtains, colored lights and five chairs—DeMaio strips the production down to the basics: her razor-edged script and great actors. Without exception, all five actresses (Patti Cumby, Kara Knappe, Mo Arii, Cynthia Ryanen and Nora Zimmett) effect a solid piece of ensemble acting of the kind rarely seen onstage, weaving together a devastating story of crushed dreams, hope and salvaged dignity that burrows deep inside your heart.
The only false note is the presence of a faceless Interviewer whose decided lack of sensitivity—he often grows impatient when the women hesitate to share the more graphic details of their stories —seems out of place. If it's DeMaio's intention to further highlight the women's degradation, it's simply unnecessary. The numerous stories of sexual slavery, beatings and forced sterilization make the point perfectly.
That flaw is a big one, but it doesn't detract from the intensity of this important work—a work that is also deeply informative. Until I saw this play, I was completely unaware that European women captured by Japan's allies were also put into the houses. That quality makes Unrelenting Relaxation a rarity: political theater that opens your mind and your tear ducts.
Unrelenting Relaxation at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Sat.-Sun., 5 p.m. Through Feb. 17. $10-$12.