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Publication Date: Wednesday, March 26, 2003

REVIEW: TheatreWorks' 'Legacy Codes' is well-made, but too abstract REVIEW: TheatreWorks' 'Legacy Codes' is well-made, but too abstract (March 26, 2003)

By Bryan Wiggin
Almanac Theater Critic

"The Legacy Codes," being given its world premiere by TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, is a well-crafted play that makes good use of such theatrical devices as direct address and choreographed movement. It's also an intelligent and well-written play, and it's almost always interesting. But it never fully engages the emotions, and, ultimately, it leaves one feeling a bit unsatisfied.

The author, Cherylene Lee, has based her story on the case of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear physicist who was imprisoned for allegedly giving classified information to China. The argument made by Mr. Lee's defenders, and that is made about his fictional counterpart in this play, is that the accusations against him were motivated by racial prejudice.

In the play, Dr. Tai Liu (Jim Ishida) is continuing the work of his mentor, the late Dick Fortier, who was a fatherly figure to him. Tai and his wife, Ming (Wal Ching Ho), are now socially acquainted with Mr. Fortier's son Richard (Michael Keys Hall) and his wife, Diane (Shiela Savage). Furthermore, the Lius' son, Erling (Trieu Tran), and the Fortiers' daughter, Minna (Susy McInerny), are romantically involved.

Tai views the continuation of his and the elder Fortier's work as his legacy. But Richard has no fond remembrance of his father, who was distant and un-nurturing. Richard now works in computer security for the Department of Energy, and his current assignment is to determine if Tai is giving secrets to China -- even though Tai was born in Taiwan, which is the enemy of China. Furthermore, Diane works for the FBI. Also, Ming used to work for the CIA.

When Tai learns that Richard is going to audit his work prior to installing a new security module, he makes copies of his millions of lines of code, fearing that Richard will inadvertently damage some and thus destroy his life's work. But when Richard detects that material has been copied, he concludes that Tai is a spy.

What we don't know, here, is to what extent Richard is unconsciously motivated by a desire to strike back at his father by destroying the legacy that he does not share. Certainly, his feeling toward Tai is one of enmity for having received the interest from his father that he, Richard, did not. Later, Tai attempts to protect his own son by giving him the location of the computer tapes he has hidden so that Erling can then give this information to the government, thus proving that he is a loyal American.

Yes, it is rather complicated, and that complexity overburdens the narrative line. With all the explicating that must be done, and with many sentences of such length and complexity that one can almost hear the commas marking off dependent clauses, the characters seem artificial, mere embodiments of attitudes and ideas. They're so busy with explanations and clarifications and generalizations that they lose the directness of real people caught in a mess of more than their own devising, and it's not very easy to care about them.

All the acting is of solid quality. The consistently best performance, the one that conveys the most feeling, is that of Trieu Tran as Erling. Susy McInerny, as Minna, has a splendid burst of language early in Act II about how unfair and confusing everything is.

Amy Gonzalez has done excellent work as director, with everything moving smoothly and tautly. Scenic designer Andrea Bechert has created a strong, dramatic set, dominated by a huge model of the double helix, endless computer code crawling across a screen at the back, and some striking red chairs. Kudos also go to lighting designer Ethan Hoerneman, sound designer Cliff Caruthers, and incidental music composer Anthony Brown.

How would I summarize? "The Legacy Codes" is an interesting theatrical experience, and if you like the kind of craftfulness that theater can offer, I think you'll find it ... well ... interesting. But it's not a play that warms the heart or stirs the blood or even tickles the funnybone. So, you choose.

"The Legacy Codes," by Cherylene Lee, is being presented by TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through April 6. For information, call 903-6000, or go to


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