CAMBRIDGE - For good or ill, contemporary theater is marked by a distinct tropism toward tightly focused dramas with minimal casts and scant, if any, changes of scenery.
Consider, to draw just a few recent examples from local stages, the Huntington Theatre Company’s “God of Carnage’’ (four characters), SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Red’’ (two), Nora Theatre Company’s “Photograph 51’’ (six), New Repertory Theatre’s “Art’’ (three), and Lyric Stage Company’s just-opened production of “Time Stands Still’’ (four).
For good and ill, “Wild Swans,’’ now receiving its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater under the direction of Sacha Wares, operates on a larger scale, with a much wider scope.
Adapted by Alexandra Wood from Jung Chang’s best-selling memoir, “Wild Swans’’ tells the story of a family’s precarious passage through the three tumultuous decades of Mao Zedong’s rule.
This coproduction by the ART, the Young Vic, and the Actors Touring Company features a cast of 17 and an ever-shifting variety of settings (a field, a hospital ward, a village, an apartment, an office, a work camp, a city). The design team has done superlative work on “Wild Swans,’’ with particularly ingenious creations by Beijing video artist Wang Gongxin. A scene from the 1970s that illustrates the whirlwind pace of modernization in China, post-Mao, features some of the most dynamic use of video I’ve ever seen onstage.
I wish Wood had paused, during the sprint through the decades, long enough to build more full-bodied character portraits of the family at the center of “Wild Swans.’’ But the family’s story is inherently so compelling that a cumulative emotional impact does register, especially when one considers that their travails are a microcosm of the suffering of millions.
The family consists of De-Hong (Ka-Ling Cheung) and her husband, Shou-Yu (Orion Lee), who rise to official positions in the Communist Party only to fall calamitously from grace; their daughter, Er-Hong, based on Jung Chang and portrayed by Katie Leung (who played Cho Chang in the “Harry Potter’’ films); and De-Hong’s mother, Yu-Fang (Julyana Soelistyo), who was forced to be a warlord’s concubine during the pre-Mao era.
Their performances are competent, no more - perhaps because the actors carry the burden of dialogue that often comes across as italicized talking points, pronouncements, or slogans, even during nonpolitical exchanges.
“Wild Swans’’ is much more effective in its depiction of the human costs of a system that was born of a desire to rectify social injustice, but that quickly spiraled into an ideological madness bent on the annihilation of the spirit.
The repressive environment of Mao’s China is far more than a backdrop in “Wild Swans’’; it pervades nearly every scene and lends an aura of fatefulness to each uncertain step the family takes.
The women are the first to spot, and experience, the all-encompassing excesses of party orthodoxy. While visiting De-Hong in a hospital, Yu-Fang is incredulous that Shou-Yu criticizes her for the simple act of bringing soup to her daughter and De-Hong’s doctor. He says the gesture makes De-Hong look “bourgeois, pampered.’’
De-Hong agrees with this general line of thinking, but soon she runs afoul of the party herself. At an official meeting, she questions an “absurd rule’’ that deems her mother a member of “the exploiting class’’ and will force her to relocate to a distant part of China. “Are you questioning the party?’’ demands another official. Replies De-Hong: “We’re here to ask questions, aren’t we?’’ “Of each other, not the party,’’ responds the official. “But we are the party,’’ says De-Hong. Soon, her former relationship with a Nationalist officer in the pre-Mao era is used as a weapon against her, resulting in her detention.
Even that is not enough to shake Shou-Yu’s essential faith in the system. But when he discovers that Mao’s “Great Leap Forward’’ - a nationwide policy of mandatory agricultural collectivization - is leading to famine and starvation, Shou-Yu writes a letter denouncing the policy. It is an act of conscience that carries longstanding ramifications for the entire family. (It’s also a resonant echo of a scene from earlier in the play, when De-Hong and Shou-Yu, as fervent young communists, helped confiscate land and food from a cruel landlord and redistribute it among the starving peasants.)
Amid the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, fanatical young Red Guards cite that letter as they terrorize the family, calling Shou-Yu a “poison spreader’’ and burning their books. (This scene would be even more disturbing if Annie Chang, as the leader of the Red Guards, was convincingly menacing).
The ripple effects of Shou-Yu’s truth-telling bit of political heresy are still being felt a year later, when the full weight of authority closes in and De-Hong, Er-Hong, and Yu-Fang are confronted with a choice: Disavow Shou-Yu, or stand by him and suffer permanent consequences.
It won’t be the last hard choice young Er-Hong has to make as she tries to find her own path to the future while trying to reckon with the anguish - personal and national - of the past.