As often as we glibly acknowledge the malleability of time — time flies; time stood still — it usually takes an extraordinary event to really disrupt our experience of the present moment. In his new play, Time’s Journey Through a Room, Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada traces the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that devastated Japan in 2011, exploring how sudden calamity reshapes three survivors’ consciousness of the subsequent minutes, days, and years. Directed by Dan Rothenberg for the Play Company, Time’s Journey is a spare, meticulous, and sometimes frustratingly oblique study of human interaction in disaster’s wake.
The room of Okada’s title is the center of a clean, midcentury modern apartment — the home of Honoka (Yuki Kawahisa) and her husband, Kazuki (Kensaku Shinohara) — where, for much of the play, Honoka reminisces about the earthquake and the hours that followed. But not in the terms you might imagine. Flitting wide-eyed across the floor, Honoka rapturously describes the wonder of the event, how its disruptive power brought her community together and raised her hopes for a reshaped, better world to come. Kazuki, meanwhile, sits motionless in a wooden chair, facing upstage, barely acknowledging Honoka’s exclamations of joy. Then there’s Arisa (Maho Honda), who acts as a narrator of sorts, informing the audience that she’ll be entering shortly, and will eventually become Kazuki’s girlfriend. But isn’t Kazuki married? Turns out, Honoka died four days after the earthquake, and her gleeful monologue is all in Kazuki’s mind. He’s alone, traumatized, unsure how to begin again.
With painstaking precision, Okada shuffles and rearranges his three protagonists — who together form a broken love triangle of sorts — to scramble our emotional and narrative coordinates. The dead person, Honoka, is gloriously, exaggeratedly alive, while the living people, Kazuki and Arisa, speak and move at a glacial, almost catatonic pace, announcing affectlessly their affections for one another. It feels like hours between the moment they sit down on the couch and the moment they tentatively take each other’s hands.
Such deliberately uncomfortable pacing is part of Okada’s exacting design, meant to jolt spectators out of our assumptions about the passage of time and about our emotional responses to shocking events. It’s effective, as far as it goes — this hour-long drama of memory and courtship is strenuous to watch — but it also feels less generously constructed than some of Okada’s previous works. Even given Honoka’s ghostly joy, Okada strips his story to a cold, laconic core, rooted in catastrophe and trauma. It’s hard not to look for some further dimension onstage — an escape from the piece’s inching inexorability.
Other dimensions emerge from the visual world of the piece. Anna Kiraly’s beautiful, obsessively clean set design echoes Okada’s playwriting: white walls, sunshine-yellow floor, two orange flowers in a vase carefully arranged on a white table. Dark tape lines emerging from the window and doorframe trace out angular shapes, as if marking the edges of nonexistent shadows. The only messiness anywhere in Time’s Journey is a striking sequence without dialogue or actors. In the darkness before the play begins, a screen displays a glowing blue square, shuddering and splitting apart into many concentric frames. A foggy circle, like a staring iris, comes in and out of focus. This technological flourish, a creation of Rothenberg, Kiraly, and sound and lighting designers Mikaal Sulaiman and Amith Chandrashaker, gestures toward the disaster itself. In its abstraction and unpredictability, it provokes an emotional response that’s hard to find in the human interactions that follow. Here, we’re not looking into Okada’s room from the outside; we’re inside, shaking and rumbling together.