Trial by Water
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 23, 2006
Qui Nguyen's new drama Trial by Water tells a story that's as important as it is harrowing. It's also enormously personal to the playwright, as revealed in a fascinating program note that lets us know that the story we're about to see is a fictionalized account of events that actually happened to a young Vietnamese boy, Hung Tran, who is Nguyen's own cousin.
The year is 1988, and though the Vietnam War has been over for more than a decade, strife between the victorious Communist North and the conquered South remains very real. (Did Americans really understand this then? I don't think so.) Khue Tran was once a soldier in the South Vietnamese army and is still as much a revolutionary as circumstances permit; he's got reason to believe that his family may be in some danger (we don't learn the details until late in the play; I won't reveal them here). So with his wife, Pham, he decides that the safest course of action is to put their two sons, Hung and Huy, on a boat to America.
And so the two boys, both in their early teens, find themselves among hundreds of other would-be refugees, on a tiny craft in Ben Tre harbor near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The trip is supposed to last a week or so, and is scary enough for two inexperienced youngsters who have been warned by their father to speak to no one and to ration their meager water and food. But when the boat's engine breaks down in the middle of the South China Sea, the voyage turns from dangerous to deadly.
What follows is an adventure you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, all the more horrific for being, in its outline, true. Hung grows up fast and learns to be a man, one might say; in addition to his youth, he sacrifices his still-forming ideals and religious beliefs. He says, at the end of the play, that his soul is dead: the events that bring him to such a place are brutally depicted by Nguyen, laid bare for our edification and inspection.
Trial by Water deals in intensely specific and personal human and moral choices: few of us will ever have to confront the decisions that Hung Tran was forced to make. I left the play feeling curious to know more about the depths of desperation that would drive people like Khue and Pham to put their children on a boat like the one in this play—a phenomenon far more common than the awful catastrophe that propels this particular story.
For this world premiere, Ma-Yi Theater Company has put together a splendid production, featuring a stunning set by Clint Ramos, effective puppetry designed by Jane Stein and performed by Jessica Chandlee Smith and Timothy McCown Reynolds, and evocative lighting by Nicole Pearce. John Gould Rubin's staging is always interesting if occasionally slow-moving, though I wondered about his use of space: for most of the play, there's a sense of openness that effectively suggests young Hung's isolation and alienation but belies the conditions of crowding we keep hearing about. The cast is excellent, especially Dinh Q. Doan as Hung and Arthur Acuña as Tien, a colleague of Hung's father who works hard to become Hung's friend and protector during this terrible voyage.
One final note—the program contains, in addition to Nguyen's eloquent message, a wealth of valuable background material that will help educate Americans like myself about what happened in Vietnam after our war there ended.