Left to right:  Paul Juhn, Cindy Im and Jo Mei in The Great Wave at Berkeley Rep, directed by Mark Wing-Davey. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The Great Wave should have been a great play. It seemingly has all the right ingredients: a spine-tingling story based on real geopolitical events involving a captured young Japanese woman imprisoned by the totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea, while her valiant mother and sister back home battle their government for support, never giving up hope of being reunited with her.

Yet, the elements fail to coalesce and instead produce a rather lengthy, documentary-style affair that lacks spine-chilling spy thrills on the one hand, and pathos and poignancy on the other. The production does have many vivid moments of fine acting and human warmth; unfortunately, the overall effect veers toward the stilted and inexpressive.

From 1979 to 2003, North Korea conducted a far-fetched, though absolutely factual, terrorist campaign in which it secretly abducted some ordinary Japanese citizens and held them for up to 25 years, during which time they were forced to teach North Korean spies how to pass for Japanese. The Great Wave is the fictionalized tale of one such kidnap victim, Hanako (excellent Jo Mei), who as a petulant teenager is captured on the beach during a fierce storm (with outstandingly convincing rogue wave effects by video designer Tara Knight).

At first, Hanako’s mother Etsuko (well-acted by Sharon Omi), and sister Reiko (outstanding Yurié Collins), fear that she has been washed out to sea. But Reiko saw three strange-looking men on the shore that night. A young male friend and neighbor, for whom the sisters were competing, Tetsuo (effective Julian Cihi), blames himself since he had left Hanako alone on the beach. Over years, he painstakingly detects the fantastic facts that Hanako was not the only one who went missing from the Japanese coastline. The family’s battle to find their missing relative and to force the reluctant, risk-averse Japanese government to confront this heinous international kidnapping outbreak forms half of the action. The other half is Hanako’s sad life as a captive in North Korea. And her struggle is heartbreaking.

As written by Japanese/Northern Irish author Francis Turnly, the scenes continuously ping-pong between North Korea and Japan, as large screen titles signify the years going by. The multiple scene shifts get in the way of experiencing any of the characters profoundly or providing novel political insights. Instead, the play functions more like a chronological record of the events — often resembling a documentary more than a drama.

Mark Wing-Davey has directed six diverse plays at Berkeley Rep, (including The Life of Galileo, 36 Views, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre). In this production, the stage muffles the actors’ voices and the two hour and forty-five-minute performance (with one intermission) moves very slowly, so that the climax, when it finally arrives, seemed almost an afterthought.

The Great Wave is based on riveting political events with explosions of high drama and human emotion, enveloped by dreariness.

The Great Wave is playing at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre through October 27, 2019. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit http://www.berkeleyrep.org/

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...