Epic and intimate, Chimerica—British playwright Lucy Kirkwood’s long-gestating lay fantasia on international themes—has size and ambition like nothing else on a D.C. stage in 2015. The only thing that’s come close to its level of accomplishment is the other three-and-a-half-hour drama I saw this year, Forum Theatre’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s decade-old Passion Play. But Chimerica, making its U.S. debut in a stirring production at Studio Theatre, has an urgency that feels utterly contemporary. (If no one tries to turn it into a film, it’ll only be because it wouldn’t have a hope in hell of playing in China, the world’s number-one movie market.) Fifty or a hundred years from now, when China has long since surpassed the United States in every way power can be measured, Kirkwood’s play will stand as a striking, sympathetic document of the waning of one nation and the waxing of another. It feels like career-making achievement, and its prolific author was only 29 when it premiered in London in mid-2013.
If that sounds like a long night, don’t worry: Despite Chimerica’s imposing run time, its pleasures are accessible and plentiful, and both Kirkwood and director David Muse know how to land a joke. At its core, the play is a compelling detective story, interwoven with a believably complicated romance and a haunting examination of grief.
It opens in the “Batdance”-punctuated summer of 1989, with young-pup photojournalist Joe Schofield (Ron Menzel, in a richly shaded performance) covering the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. He snaps that iconic photograph of a young man, dressed like a 1960s NASA employee and armed only with a plastic shopping bag in each hand, standing directly in the path of four tanks. In reality, several photographers got minor variations of the same shot; the most widely seen one was by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press. In the play, Joe hides his roll of film in a toilet tank just before soldiers burst into his hotel room, as Newsweek photographer Charlie Cole, who captured a similar picture, did in real life.
The action then leaps to 2012. Joe is now a fortysomething veteran of conflict zones, currently assigned the relatively low-stress gig of covering the U.S. presidential campaign for the (unnamed) New York Times. He’s friendly with Zhang Lin (Rob Yang, soulful and sad), a Beijing English teacher. A casual conversation over beers gets Joe hooked on a mystery that’s stymied real reporters for a generation: What happened to Tank Man? Who was he? Is still alive?
As Joe’s curiosity turns into an obsession, he clashes with his editor (the ever-reliable Paul Morella), who repeats the familiar lament about how the Internet has taken away both the funding and the appetite for real journalism; and his partner on the story, writer Mel Stanwyck (Lee Sellars), who’s only interested in China insofar as it’s costing Americans jobs. On the other side of the world, Lin can’t sleep: His neighbor (Jade Wu) is dying noisily of “Beijing Lung,” and in his exhaustion, Lin dreams of the late 1980s, when he was a young man and his wife was still alive. He writes a blog post about the pollution, earning him a panicked rebuke from his brother Zhang Wei (Kenneth Lee), an executive at a factory owned by a party official. More frighteningly, Lin gets the attention of the police. Neither Wei nor the authorities want the “economic miracle” narrative of China’s rapid modernization stained by reports of air so contaminated that Lin’s 59-year-old neighbor looks and sounds like she’s 90.
The third major character is Tessa Kendrick (Tessa Klein), an English marketing specialist who forges a fast, with-benefits friendship with Joe on a New York–Beijing flight. Her purely mercenary mandate is at odds with Joe’s noble but arrogant one. In a presentation to the American bank that has hired her to get Chinese customers to sign up for their credit cards, she uses Joe’s Tank Man photo, pointing not to its subject’s astonishing courage, but to the shopping bags in his hands. Earlier, Joe’s colleague Mel mentioned that if he ever met Tank Man, he would ask him what he was carrying, citing this as the sort of humanizing detail on which good journalism relies. Good playwriting, too: The contents of those bags is ultimately what keeps the play’s climax from feeling too pat and schematic.
Even with a dozen actors in the cast, Kirkwood’s sprawling story requires all but four of them to play multiple roles. It would be facile to interpret the principal trio—a Chinese, an American, and a Briton—as unwitting envoys for their respective nations. Certainly, Joe is a ready metaphor for U.S.: Decent but overconfident, prone to self-righteousness, and blind to how his zeal makes innocents suffer. But all three feel like real, complex, contradictory people. Especially Lin, whose visions of his wife and himself as young students in 1989 (played by Kelsey Wang and Jacob Yeh, who’s terrific in his several small roles) grow more vivid as Joe’s reckless investigation proceeds.
While Chimerica is not part of the Women’s Voices Festival, it’s apt that Studio has snagged the U.S. premiere of a play this smart and essential by one of the most perceptive working playwrights of any gender. To misquote the “radical feminist” Carol Hanisch, personal is geopolitical.