'Snow in Midsummer' review — classic Chinese drama becomes a modern murder mystery
Complain as we might about the rapidly rising New York heat, getting snow in midsummer would be a nightmare. So, too, is it in New Harmony, China in Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play of the same name at Classic Stage Company, albeit for much graver reasons than needing to dig out your extra layers. Snow in Midsummer backloads and occasionally overextends its drama, but it's a mostly suspenseful watch based on a time-honored story.
Cowhig's show is an adaptation of The Injustice to Dou E that Touched Heaven and Earth, a 13th-century Chinese drama by Guan Hanqing. In the original story, the young widow Dou E and her mother-in-law get "protection" from a villainous man named Zhang, whose son later tries to poison the mother-in-law and ends up killing his father instead. Dou E is framed but maintains her innocence to the last moment, declaring that it will snow in June ahead of a three-year-drought if she's innocent. All this comes to fruition, but things are quickly set right in the fourth and final act.
Snow in Midsummer is only two acts as opposed to The Injustice's four, and yet it plods. Dou Yi's (as she's renamed here) execution happens mid-Act 1, and the revelation of what really happened on the day she was framed (I won't reveal exactly how Cowhig updated it so as not to spoil the whole show) comes in the last 20 minutes, which are thrilling but feel overdue.
Beforehand, in this adaptation, a wealthy businesswoman, Tianyun Lin, moves to New Harmony with her daughter Fei-Fei, who is visited by Dou Yi's ghost. Tianyun spends most of the first act figuring out who Dou Yi is, and though she's tasked at the top of the second act with getting justice for Dou Yi, Tianyun is promptly sidelined for most of it as the person actually responsible for Dou Yi's death takes over. (Teresa Avia Lim, as Tianyun, does well with an uneven part.) Fei-Fei also disappears, and while that's a deliberate plot point, it's quickly dismissed. It's also a shame because the precocious Fin Moulding, as Fei-Fei, is a scene-stealer.
The characters actually at the center of the action are Handsome Zhang (John Yi, and note the character's surname) and Rocket Wu (Tommy Bo), a gay couple whose relationship turns upside down as the truth about Dou Yi comes to light. And of course, there's Dorcas Leung as Dou Yi, who you can't look away from even if you wanted to. With wails and haunts, she demands her presence be known and the injustices against her atoned for. Her fiery Act 1 monologue on the execution stand is riveting, if only because you're holding your breath, waiting for the inevitable.
Snow in Midsummer's greatest highlight is its visuals, particularly Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting, which is consistently evocative. But overall, too much flab — including a subplot about a shady doctor, a couple characters whose exact purpose is confusing, and multiple mom reveals — muddies what has the potential to be a tight and compelling murder mystery. That said, the concept is strong, and Snow in Midsummer is worth supporting as, hopefully, one of many future Eastern dramas on major New York stages.
Photo credit: Dorcas Leung and Kenneth Lee in Snow in Midsummer at Classic Stage Company. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)
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