Those of us who like miso know how it creeps up on us. At first, the mild soup seems too simple to have much flavor. Then the taste settles subtly and invigoratingly on the tongue. By the end of the bowl, we're warm and nourished.
“A Thousand Cranes” works the same way. Kathryn Schultz Miller's one-act play covers a brief but entire emotional journey in 50 minutes. Children's Theatre of Charlotte has revived it after just three years with a new cast of Tarradiddle Players, though Nicia Carla is back as director. She trusts the play to get its message across, even to elementary schoolers who may be puzzled by the flash of red light that stands in for an atomic bomb, and I'll bet she's right.
We see just enough of Sadako Sasaki (Leslie Ann Giles) to think of her as something other than a victim. The play starts in 1954, nine years after the U.S. Army dropped the bomb on her native Hiroshima, and she begins it as a fleet-footed 11-year-old anxious about an upcoming citywide race.
Kenji (Stephen Seay), her playmate and trainer, likes her chances. Her traditional parents (Ashby Blakely and Darlene Parker Black) admire her zeal but remind her that other things matter, too. Then they learn she has leukemia as a result of the A-bomb fallout, and little seems to matter at all.
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The title comes from a legend that the gods grant a wish to anyone who can fold 1,000 paper cranes. So Sadako sets out to make her origami quota before illness can fell her.
No heartstrings get tugged in obvious ways. The low-key set consists of a screen, two large fans for twirling and three red masks representing ancestors on poles. When actors aren't speaking, they sit to one side and strike woodblocks or blow a few notes on a flute. Sadako, scarcely able to understand what's happening, does not ask for our pity.
When her dead grandmother (also played by Black) offers to fly Sadako's spirit to a distant mountain, she goes with quiet joy. Only the final image, a wall of multi-colored cranes, startles the senses, and even that rustles gently into place.
The real Sadako got a statue in Hiroshima Peace Park half a century ago. Her last words in the play are a hope that “there would never be another bomb like that again.” Perhaps the legend of the cranes is valid, for her wish has come true – so far.