Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Emily Kuroda and Mia Tagano
Photo by Kevin Berne
Daughter and mother. Sister and sister. Cousin and cousin. East and West. Immigrant and first-generation. Asian and African-American. Deep-set, cultural customs and newfound, modern preferences. The aging sick and the family as caregiver. The dead and the living.

And for every "and," consider replacing with "versus."

In only ninety minutes, Velina Hasu Houston packs into Calligraphy these and more dichotomous relationships and situations—any one of which could easily be the sole subject of a staged drama or comedy. Together, an often powerful portrait emerges of a family split by an ocean, a generation, lingering prejudice, and memories that should fade but do not ... and those that should not, but do. So many conflicts and confrontations emerge—both those happening real time and those that happened decades before—that at times Calligraphy becomes a cross between a over-dramatic soap opera and a TV sitcom. And yet, in the elegantly staged version by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, that crossover is not all bad since most of our day-to-day lives can sometimes feel like we are in a B-movie or a summer re-run—especially when faced with mothers who make us feel guilty, daughters who are self-centered and rude, and memories that are slipping away faster by the day for no apparent reason at all.

As a young woman in post-war Japan, Noriko Matsuda Jameson fell in love with an African-American MP named Eamon, after using her broken English to tell him on their first meeting, "Your skin color, like soy sauce." Her decision to marry him and move to Los Angeles caused a breach with her sister, Natsuko Matsuda, who a half century later still cannot accept the marriage's mix of race, nationality and culture or let go of the resentment that she was left to be the second choice of her would-be husband, who actually loved Noriko more.

In 2001, the daughters (Hiromi in LA and Sayuri in Tokyo) of these sisters who once enjoyed nothing better than sharing persimmons and secrets together but who now never talk, communicate via Skype, sharing cousin gossip of their separate lives and plotting how to force a reunion of their mothers at an ancient, treasured spa in Japan. But into their plans life happens. Noriko begins to show increasing signs of forgetting everyday things (or even big things, like the fact her beloved husband is now dead), and ballroom-dancing Natsuko suddenly has both legs in casts and in wheelchair. Both cousins/daughters now find their busy daily lives disrupted and plans of reunion in jeopardy, each driven by age-old Japanese customs that children's (especially daughters') first duty is to care for aging parents—in person and not with just a checkbook.

As current crises begin to mount on top of past hurt feelings and deeply felt cuts of past and current insults, the Japanese mother-daughter pair increasingly begins to look and feel more American while the American pair, ever-more Japanese. Cultures and histories both divide and coincide as this extended family moves toward an ultimate meeting that has all the ingredients for disaster as well as faint possibilities for reconciliation.

As foreign as some of the elements might appear for most audience members, the more strokes of the pen that cross the canvas before us, the more we all begin to see our own families and our own individual selves among these four women so different from many of us in appearance, culture and background (and for men in the audience, even in gender).

Noriko clearly loves and adores her daughter Hiromi, even if Hiromi is usually too busy with career, kid's soccer, and her husband to spend time to have tea with her or to share in their joint love of creating calligraphy on canvas. As Noriko, Emily Kuroda is gently persistent but sometimes quickly explosive in her prodding of her daughter to spend more time together—with a palpable urgency neither her daughter nor we (and most certainly, not even she) seem quite to understand.

Something is beginning to change within Noriko as Ms. Kuroda plays out before us in sometimes sweet, often sad, and always heart-breaking ways the progression of Alzheimer's. The effects on her, her daughter, and their relationship are like a wild roller-coaster ride that begins slowly and then rockets into unexpected twists and turns—like when she is found on the edge of a major highway miles from home.

The pressure put upon Hiromi by her aging mother with a disease hard to accept is just one of the landmines that Mia Tagano as Hiromi is actively trying with all her stressed being to avoid setting off explosions in her life. Ms. Houston's script is filled to the brim with many dichotomous battles, and Hiromi is often managing/fighting them all at the same time. In every respect of voice, body and spirit, Ms. Tagano shows an incredibly wide gamut of emotions and reactions in dealing with a Japanese cousin who is going all Hollywood on her at a time she just wants the cousin to be grown-up and centered on family; with a mother who is losing reality while remembering how to push the very buttons that Hiromi resents being pushed; and with her own torn sense of duty to mother, to husband/child, and to herself.

Her cousin Sayuri is doing all she can to avoid anything like a serious relationship with a man (which irritates her mother to no end). She had much rather attract with her long, blonde wig a parade of Japanese men for a few steamy dates (which makes her mom mad because the hot, shirtless guy next door is now seeing her daughter while mom is the one really lusting after him). But while determined to be single and sexy and mostly free of her mother's continual insults ("Your earrings hang like snot"), Sayuri is also fighting and losing the battle to adhere to the Japanese tradition of caring for a mother who is now stuck behind a walker and demanding home-cooked meals from a daughter she wants with her 24/7. Elizabeth Pan is excellent as a forty-year-old often still stuck in her late teens.

The fourth piece of this family puzzle is Natsuko, the sister in Japan who cannot seem to forgive Noriko for marrying a black soldier, for moving to America, and mostly for leaving her now to be a widow of a man she can hardly mention without bitterly cursing his name. Jeanne Sakata plays this snappy-tongued, haughty (and clearly lonely) woman who loves to dress in long gowns and waltz and to pretend as if she can still turn the heads and attention of young Japanese men (like the neighbor next door—she injured herself standing on mason bricks to get a better look at his undershirt birthmark).

The playwright has given Natsuko some of the best lines of cynical humor ("Old is a seed between your teeth you can't get out" and "Civilization is in the toilet, and your generation is flushing it away"). She is also the character most difficult to like or for whom to find much sympathy. But Ms. Sakata knows how to keep us coming back for more as we try and figure out just who this Natsuko really is. Before the end of the play, the talented actress reveals sides of her character that show there is a heart doing more than just sustaining the life of this hardened-by-time-and-tradition woman she plays.

As Noriko deals with her still-fresh grief of losing her husband and her sudden bouts of current reality and long-ago memories melding confusingly into one, William Thomas Hodgson emerges in and out of her sight and sound as the sometimes young soldier and as the sometimes aged husband she loved and knew deeply as Eamon. Floating into her reality with a softness of manner and an evident respect of differences that is always there in spite of his big grins and gently teasing manner, Mr. Hodgson focuses each second of his brief appearances of Eamon on his Noriko and only on her. Scenes of his gingerly flirting with Noriko are particularly touching as the now-older woman suddenly transforms into a shy and blushing girl and as the two bridge language and cultural gaps to grab that first kiss.

Leslie Martinson directs this talented cast with touches both light and harsh as the various dichotomies presented dance cautiously together before often colliding with seeming intent to hurt those loved most. The script she is given to orchestrate does at times seem to meander and linger a bit too long in some conversations and scenes (e.g., computer "girl" chitchat between the cousins or a few mother-daughter interactions and bickering when the two are stubbornly stuck in their own demands and selfish wishes). At those moments, the play loses some energy and momentum, making the its ninety-minute duration seem longer than it actually is.

But with deft prowess, the director and playwright collaborate to regain an energy and a focus that hits the target, strikes deep, and touches the heart and the soul—particularly in the final ten or so minutes. In those closing moments, all is forgiven for any prior, mind-wandering minutes that might have been experienced.

Erick Flatmo's scenic design of a small, raised platform with a simple low-rise table and engulfed by two slanting, blank walls immediately captures the simplicity of pattern and form we often associate with Japanese culture—all further enhanced by beautiful designs of butterflies and intertwined vines on the stage's edge and back. David Lee Cuthbert has created magnificent projections that establish location of scene as well as the current state of Noriko's mind—sometimes just through the slow, deliberate strokes of calligraphy.

The lighting of Steven B. Mannshardt provides luminous background colors as well as the atmospheres of dream and memory. Gregory Robinson's sound design subtly clues us when Noriko is having a moment of memory confusion, while Alina Bokovikova's costume designs blend rotating cultures and time periods into an array of often stunning and always effective garments.

At one point, Noriko says to her daughter, "My mind may not remember, but my heart won't forget." In the day after I saw the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of Velina Hasu Houston's Calligraphy, I am already forgetting some of the parts of the play I yesterday found a bit repetitious and slow. I am today remembering and relishing the way those many opposing dichotomies came together to leave a lasting mark on my heart.

Calligraphy continues through April 2, 2017, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at