2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist The Far Country makes its way to the Bay Area stage, with a brutal depiction of what it took for Chinese immigrants to enter San Francisco in the early 1900s.

Countless pop culture works have depicted San Francisco’s historic Chinatown, from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1950s musical Flower Drum Song, to the 80s action flick Big Trouble in Little China, to the more recent Bruce Lee-penned HBO series Warrior. All of these works largely ignore the ugly legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act — which was in effect from 1882 to 1943 — and that law's traumatic effects on Chinese immigrant families during that 60-year period.

But that’s the focus of playwright Lloyd Suh’s 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist play The Far Country, which is coming off a highly acclaimed New York run, and playing at the Berkeley Rep through April 14. Only a small part of the play takes place in San Francisco Chinatown proper — more of it is set at the long-defunct Angel Island Detention Center, which was used as a holding pen for immigrants to determine whether they could be admitted to SF or the US. (The vast majority of Chinese immigrants were sent back.)

Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and cast in Lloyd Suh’s 'The Far Country' performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: Kevin Berne

The Far Country covers events between 1909 and 1930, and the play feels like a huge, sprawling historical epic. This suspension of disbelief is largely aided by the dazzling, larger-than-life visual projections by Hsuan-Kung Hsieh and the lighting design by Minjoo Kim: real headlines from SF newspapers of the day, the images of 19th Century passports, vintage family photos, and even some old San Francisco video footage from the early 1900s. Projection mapping, after all, is the great new smoke and mirrors of contemporary theater.

Tess Lina (Low/Two) and Feodor Chin (Gee/Three) in Lloyd Suh’s breathtaking 'The Far Country' performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: Kevin Berne

But there are real-life elements to designer Wilson Chin’s stage sets that also take you to another place or time. These are simple but convincing depictions of rural Chinese farms in Guangdong, the prison cells of the Angel Island Detention Center, and slum apartments of Chinatown. But throughout the entire play, rolls of barbed wire stay set atop the stage, reminding us that in this tale of immigration, no one ever finds a land where they are free.

Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet), Sharon Shao (Yuen/Four), Whit K. Lee (Yip/One), Tess Lina (Low/Two), and Feodor Chin (Gee/Three) in Lloyd Suh’s 'The Far Country' performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: Kevin Berne

Director Jennifer Chang leans heavily on bleakness throughout this production, though it is not entirely depressing, even in its darkest moments. A very lengthy scene in the first act inside the detention center makes remarkable use of poetic narration from the cast members, and projected Chinese-language characters that melt on the walls before your eyes.

(As an aside, there are poems posted in the Berkeley Rep restrooms during this production, poems written by actual Chinese detainees at Angel Island during this era. These seem very nice if you read them before the show. But they take on a whole different power if you read them at intermission, given what you have just seen at the end of the first act.)

Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and Sharon Shao (Yuen/Four) in Lloyd Suh’s 'The Far Country,' performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: Kevin Berne

The two lead actors Tommy Bo (as the young Moon Gyet) and Feodor Chin (the witty antihero Gee) pull off very convincing portrayals of men in two different twenty-year intervals of their lives. Bo, in particular, pulls off being a preteen in the first act, and a grown man in the second. Sharon Shao (the love interest Yuen) emerges with very welcome and snappy comic relief in the second act, after the audience has endured some scenes that are not particularly pleasant subject matter.

But The Far Country does feel like a great, stirring, sprawling historical epic, despite being just seven actors on a small stage in a modest-budget production. Chang’s direction takes you on a journey across continents and generations, in a small production whose emotional impact punches way above its weight. And for Bay Area theatergoers, this depiction of what happened here 100 years ago will hit very close to home.

The Far Country plays at the Berkeley Rep through April 14. Tickets here

Related: 'Cult of Love' Is a Wry and Wrenching New Family Drama at Berkeley Rep [SFNews]

Top Image: Tommy Bo (Moon Gyet) and Whit K. Lee (Yip/One) in Lloyd Suh’s breathtaking The Far Country performing at Berkeley Rep through Sunday, April 14, 2024. Credit: Kevin Berne