By Kyle Osborne
Chimerica, the epic and moving play by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood, has a lot to say about a lot of things. It covers everything from censorship to post-traumatic stress to geo-political issues. Heavy topics.
The miracle of the play is that it’s not only dense and substantive, but it also works as an enthralling mystery and is so committed to its who-dunnit elements that it name-checks both Columbo and Nancy Drew along the way.
The central mystery revolves around this question: Whatever happened to the so-called “Tank Man” of 1989’s Tiananmen Square protests in China. Anyone over a certain age will remember the searing image of a man, apparently walking home from a trip to the market with a plastic bag in each hand, defiantly standing directly in front of a Red Army tank. Briefly, but unforgettably, stalling tons of war machinery with a quiet willfulness that was the epitome of bravery.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of mostly young people (no one knows for sure) were killed during the protests by their own government. There are theories about the nameless man’s fate, but none as intriguing as Kirkwood’s fictional storyline that wallops the audience with at least two huge “reveals.”
The action starts in 1989 at the scene of the event; a young American photographer (Ron Menzel plays Joe Schofield) is capturing the image of “Tank Man” from his hotel room window, while simultaneously trying to figure out how he’ll smuggle the film out of the country and back home.
Returning to China in 2012, Schofield is a success, but he’s haunted by having never learned the identity of his most famous subject. His Chinese friend, Zhang Lin (Rob Yang) might be able to help Schofield solve the mystery after all, but it won’t be easy.
Chimerica becomes two stories separated by the Pacific; Schofield and his world weary colleague, Mel (Lee Sellars provides both grit and much needed chuckles) pound the pavement in New York, following clues they hope will lead to “Tank Man,” while Zhang dictates a story into a recorder, alone in his dingy Beijing apartment.
How the tales intertwine and where the story leads our two main characters is as revelatory as the final chapter of an Agatha Christie novel. How gracefully the play concludes is one of its greatest joys.
The set by Blythe R.D. Quinlan is economical and ingenuous and the cast is a deep reservoir of talent. No small parts, indeed. Director David Muse must surely be Ms. Kirkwood’s favorite person by now.
Chimerica continues at Studio Theatre through October 18th. For tickets and more information, please visit: https://www.studiotheatre.org/