Cardboard Piano, continuing at International City Theatre through May 20, is as interesting as it is unusual. Playwright Hansol Jung brings us to war-torn Uganda on the eve of the millennium, where there is hardly room for love, let alone same-sex marriage. But what happens when an American missionary’s daughter and a local girl fall in love, marry in their own church ceremony and then come face-to-face with a wounded child soldier with anti-gay sentiments?
This taut and compelling first half gives way to an equally absorbing second half set 14 years later in the same church; the civil war is now over, but events of the past continue to haunt the characters as they search for closure.
Guided by the highly capable hand of director Caryn Desai (who was recently named California State University Long Beach’s 2018 Distinguished Alumna), the four actors engage this riveting story with pitch-perfect emotion.
The feeling of nervous but giddy love is palpable between Chris (Allison Blaize), the American missionary’s daughter, and the Ugandan Adiel (Dashawn “Dash” Barnes) as they perform their own wedding on New Year’s Eve, 1999, in Chris’s father’s church with a tape recorder as their witness.
When Pika (JoJo Nwoko) enters, bleeding profusely but threatening them with a gun, the young women must decide whether to help him before continuing with their plan to flee the country so they can live together.
The double-storied church designed by Yuri Okahana, though mostly just a wooden frame with a window and cross at the top, reflects the imposing presence of Christianity within which the characters operate. Religion informs nearly all their actions, both loving and not, and also offers the main possibility for their relief.
While all the actors are effective, Barnes’s sheer naturalness and warmth as Adiel, and later as Ruth, stands out. And Nwoko, while perhaps slightly too big to play the 13-year-old Pika, later delivers a riveting performance as Paul, especially when his psychological torment is forced to surface despite his best efforts to submerge it. Blaize is credible as the stalwart Chris from start to finish, and Demetrius Eugene Hodges holds his own in two very different roles: a hardened soldier in the first half and an emotionally tortured gay young man in the second.
The title Cardboard Piano is an object referred to in the play that symbolizes mending what has been torn. Through tightly woven dialogue and fluid pacing, the play presents two moments in time, when a wound is opened and when it has a chance to be closed. We feel the fragility of that healing when the damage of love and war run so deep.
ICT’s Cardboard Piano continues at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 330 East Seaside Way, through May 20, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $47 to $49. For tickets and information, call the ICT box office at (562) 436-4610 or visit ictlongbeach.org.