GENseng's much-anticipated 10th anniversary season delivered a heartbreaking and unforgettable performance with Marjorie Chan's "A Nanking Winter."
The first half of Chan's play follows Irene Wu, a young historian and author, on the eve of her book release.
Wu's character is based on author Iris Chang, whose book, The Rape of Nanking, exposed the brutal, calculated slaughter of the Chinese by the Japanese army in World War II. Junior Christine Lin plays the role with manic fervor and urgency.
Tensions escalate as Irene battles to keep the name of her book Nanking: The Other Holocaust instead of her editor's suggestion, the politically correct Nanking Incident, though even the watered-down title draws terrifying phone threats.
The first act, which consists of one unbroken scene, is relentless and claustrophobic, smothering the viewer just as Irene's husband and publishers smother her. The emotional turmoil is inescapable; an effect enhanced by the intimate nature of the Black Box Theater.
Act II transitions to Gingling College in Nanking at the time of the Japanese invasion. Nazi businessman Niklas Hermann, played with incredible charisma and compassion by senior Eric Hooper, teams with Sister Anna Mallery - a brilliantly tragic Danielle Montrand, freshman - to shelter girls on the grounds of the college.
Hermann's character is based on the real-life Nazi savior of Nanking, John Rabe, also known by the Chinese as "The Living Bhudda," and Mallory's on American missionary Minnie Vautrin, who campaigned relentlessly to create a safe zone for refugees.
During production, the cast and crew got the opportunity to work with the playwright herself, which shows in the expertise, perfection and poignancy of the finished product.
The set is stark for both acts, with wooden chairs and cardboard boxes full of research surrounding the stage in the first act and two crates with the expertly lit silhouette of a gate in the second.
This simplicity brings the play's emotional conflict to the forefront and spotlights each character with shocking honesty, exposing their strengths, weaknesses and fears.
Music plays during several scenes in the play, from howling, mournful music opening both acts to a hymn in Chinese to "O Holy Night," sung simply and beautifully by senior Danielle Montrond. The sound crew pulls these transitions off without a hitch to create the play's haunting atmosphere.
"A Nanking Winter" is simultaneously hard to watch and impossible to escape, filled with hope and despair for the human condition. It shows the horrible lengths people go to in the destruction of life, as well as the risks they take to protect it.
Stunningly acted and poignantly directed, "A Nanking Winter" is undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking and emotional pieces ever to grace a Geneseo stage. The grief is tangible, the heroes are real and the tragedy is unavoidable.
"A Nanking Winter" will be performed in the Brodie Black Box at 7 p.m. on Thursday, 4 p.m. on Friday, and 2 p.m. on Saturday. Tickets are on sale in the Brodie Box Office.