Photo by Dita Marina ObertYou can't say San Juan Capistrano playwright Joseph Hullett plays safe. His latest play, Trail of Tears, references everything from the Holocaust and the forced march of the Cherokee Nation in 1838 to gay-bashing and perennial academic battles over historical authenticity. It's an ambitious attempt to link three parallel stories from different historical periods in order to . . . I don't know. You never get the sense that what Hullett truly wants to say is so much profound as it is obvious: genocide is bad. Genocide has been with us for as long as human history; those who forget that history are doomed to repeat it. Yawn. More compelling is a point buried deep in Hullett's dense play: If good men of principle and honor break during times of intense social conflict, if they sell themselves or an entire race of people out in order to survive, what can the rest of us hope for? But that question is lost amid the encyclopedia of historical details and the broad scope of this rigorously researched play.
It doesn't help that director Oanh Nguyen, who bookends the play with two very effective images, lacks the acting horses to deliver Hullett's points. Some actors are hopelessly miscast; others are nearly inaudible, tangled in the thickets of their accents, or simply overwrought, bursting into unmotivated fits of anger or passion. Only Tree Henson as a Cherokee woman forced to leave her home in 1838 and Casey Long as an earnest history professor attempting to uncover the truth of an Austrian colleague's relationship with the Nazi Party are wholly believable.
The false notes among actors seriously impede the thrust of a play that might be more powerful than this production suggests. Hullett cares about his material deeply and demonstrates ample poetic aptitude ("God sprinkles people on the earth like rain; a place with no people is a place God forsakes"), and the structure—three interconnected stories running simultaneously—works.
The cast must have rehearsed this production with a stopwatch; on mine, it clocked in at a brisk one hour and 50 minutes. Nguyen might have taken an extra five or 10 minutes to dial in one of the play's most intriguing themes: even in the midst of seemingly impenetrable darkness, there's light.
Trail of Tears at the Chance Theater, 5576 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Sept. 8. $13-$15.