Pick! ASR Theater ~~ Immigrants’ Tale: “The Far Country” at Berkeley Rep

By Barry Willis

Xenophobia—the fear of foreigners—has infected human societies since the dawn of time. A particularly American variety gets an insightful treatment in The Far Country at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre through April 14.

In the early-to-mid 19th century, Chinese immigrants were welcomed into the United States as a source of cheap labor. They built the railroads that enabled America’s great industrial expansion, but by the 1880s, that work was mostly completed, and fear of foreigners prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act, intended to keep more of them from entering the country.

… “insightful” (and) “adroitly directed”  …

Toward the end of the century, there were reportedly fifty Chinese men in the US for every Chinese female. Most of these men sent a substantial portion of their earnings to their families back in China. That sort of ‘family-support-via-long-distance’ is still common among immigrants to this country.

Tess Lina (Low/Two) in Lloyd Suh’s breathtaking, “The Far Country”, performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Photo Credit: Kevin Berne

Playwright Lloyd Suh’s The Far Country examines the phenomenon from the individual perspectives of two generations of Chinese immigrants. Act One opens with a grueling interrogation of a San Francisco resident named Gee (Feodor Chin), a laundryman claiming that all his identification papers were destroyed in the fire that consumed the city after the 1906 earthquake. Aaron Wilton is effectively annoying as an aggressive, condescending interrogator, assisted by a perfectly bilingual interpreter despite Gee’s apparent ability with English.

Gee seeks permission to travel to China to visit his family and bring back his son, but he lacks proof of legal residency and isn’t sure he’ll be able to return. Repeated questions and more-than-implied doubts about Gee’s honesty intentionally rankle him—and the audience.

(L-R) Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet), Sharon Shao (Yuen/Four), Whit K. Lee (Yip/One), Tess Lina (Low/Two), and Feodor Chin (Gee/Three) at work at Berkeley Rep. Credit: Kevin Berne

The San Francisco Bay’s Angel Island served as a sort of counterpart to New York’s Ellis Island, where for many decades, European immigrants were processed for admission to the US, often without difficulty. Angel Island was different, a sort of choke-point for incoming Asians who could be kept in detention for as long as two years. In keeping with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the government’s work on Angel Island was to reject as many of them as possible.

Much subterfuge was involved in trying to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to admission—the theme of Act Two, where we meet Moon Gyet (Tommy Bo), Gee’s “son” who endures 17 months of detention on Angel Island, where he was allowed only one hour per day outside, and where he was subjected to intense interrogations including nonsense questions about how many steps led to the door of his childhood home.

Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and John Keabler (Dean/Inspector), in Lloyd Suh’s “The Far Country” at Berkeley Rep through 4/14/2024. Credit: Kevin Berne

The somewhat intricate story goes back and forth from California to China, where Moon Gyet meets Yuen (Sharon Shao), a bright, sassy prospective wife. There’s also an emotional flashback of Gee reuniting with his mother, Low (Tess Chin), as he hunts for an appropriate son. The whole affair of ‘admission-or-rejection’ is depicted as a complicated, high-stakes game of deception and manipulation, both by immigration authorities and people hoping to become US residents—a situation still playing out every day almost 100 years after the era of The Far Country.

Adroitly directed by Jennifer Chang and dinged only by a couple of overlong bits of dialog, The Far Country is an insightful and effective examination of gut-wrenchingly difficult circumstances. Its abrupt ending on a beautiful, upbeat note gives hope where there might have been only despair. That is the power of great art.


ASR Nor Cal Edition Executive Editor Barry Willis is an American Theatre Critics Association member and SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle president. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com


ProductionThe Far Country
Written by Lloyd Suh
Directed by Jennifer Chang
Producing CompanyBerkeley Repertory Theatre
Production DatesThru April 14th, 2024
Production Address2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA 94704
Telephone(510) 847-2949
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!