Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Directed by: Leslie Martinson
Featuring: Emily Kuroda, Elizabeth Pan, William Thomas Hodgson, Jeanne Sakata, Mia Tagano
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
When: March 8 through April 2, 2017
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Tickets: $35-$86 (savings available). Visit https://www.theatreworks.org/calendar/2016-2017-season/calligraphy/ or call 650-463-1960
in presenting 'Calligraphy'
implied in Velina Hasu Houston's script
"Calligraphy" is probably capable of being a lovely little play, with poetic ideas meant to be delivered with grace and rhythm.
The production mounted by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley shows that venerable company's usual sincere efforts, but is ultimately too clunky to achieve the play's most effective and elegant voice.
The blocking and the timing are too often awkward, making it difficult for the cast to achieve a steady cohesiveness. The actors don't seem to be wearing individual microphones, yet some of them speak toward the wings instead of to the audience, making too much of the dialogue very difficult to decipher. Those flaws make it difficult to keep track of playwright Velina Hasu Houston's script, which has a lot to say.
Still, there are bits that are triumphant.
It is the story of two Japanese women who are now in their 60s, sisters Noriko, who moved to the United States when she married an American military cop not long after the end of World War II; and Natsuko, who stayed in Japan, nursing some kind of bitter grudge against Noriko.
Hiromi is Noriko's daughter, half Japanese and half American in heritage, who is overwhelmed with filial duty as she realizes that her mother is slipping into dementia, thanks to Alzheimer's.
Sayuri is Natsuko's daughter, and is pretty much fed up with that filial duty business; she wants her own life.
Hiromi, played by the accomplished and capable Mia Tagano, is sort of the audience's surrogate as she struggles to do right things, and is shocked by some of what happens. Her father — that American soldier — has died, and she convinces her mother to leave her Kansas home and come live near her in Los Angeles. Hiromi is shocked to learn that her mother is slowly losing her mental competence.
Emily Kuroda is delightful to watch as Noriko. She seems sharp and wise at first — when Hiromi says, "You're not old," Noriko responds, "Hiromi, old is a seed stuck between your teeth that you can't get out." And she attempts to impart some wisdom, when Hiromi asks if she misses her sister. "Sure. When you're thirsty, even bitter tea will do."
But Kuroda's loveliest moments come when she slips out of reality into memories of herself as a young woman in Japan, when she meets and falls in love with the American soldier, a black man from the American south.
Kuroda is all grown up, and has that whole stern mother thing going on, but slips beautifully into the ways of a shy but charming young Japanese woman, with eyes averted and brief nods replacing words.
Really, beautifully done, and the strongest performance of the play.
William Thomas Hodgson is excellent as that polite young soldier who is smitten by the young Japanese woman, and helps bring those romantic memories to life. Hodgson also plays a police officer who brings Noriko home in modern times, when she is hallucinating, and thinks he is her dead husband.
Elizabeth Pan is Sayuri, the daughter of Natsuko, and video-chats with Hiromi, talking about booty calls with her boyfriend, and the blonde wig she wears for him. She is destined to do something selfish, but there is a surprise, pleasing twist to it.
Jeanne Sakata is fun to watch as Natsuko, who keeps a heavy thumb on Sayuri, and who has a kind of crush on the man Sayuri is seeing, although Natsuko doesn't know that. Sakata talks to the wings too often, which makes it difficult to understand some of her dialogue.
The play, which is at least partially based on Hasu Houston's own life — she is the "Hiromi," daughter of a Japanese woman and an American black man — touches on a number of issues, but is ultimately a tale of family love, and how it weighs on us and how it lifts us.
There are tears-inducing moments, especially for anybody who has known the travail of an older loved one sliding into dementia.
Erik Flatmo's scenic design, with angled walls reaching back to a triangle corner, which allow for projects for scene changes, is elegant and expressive. Alina Bokovikova's costume designs allow for both traditional Japanese kimonos and for very attractive modern clothes for Sakata and Pan.
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