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Theater review: ‘Calligraphy’ at Los Angeles Theatre Center

November 18, 2010 |  6:00 pm

Calligraphy Filial piety is an account we can never pay off, asserts playwright Velina Hasu Houston — especially in a traditional Japanese culture steeped in family obligations. 

Houston’s new play, “Calligraphy,” examines the enduring legacy of those bonds amid the complexities of contemporary multinational relations, as two cousins — one American, the other Japanese — cope with the increasing frailties of their respective aging mothers. 

Although her play is not strictly autobiographical, the bicultural Houston writes with the authority of firsthand experience about the difficult choices facing Los Angeles-based Hiromi (Melody Butiu), the daughter of an African American WWII veteran (Kevin Daniels) and his Japanese war bride, Noriko (Emily Kuroda).

Noriko had courageously defied the horrified objections of her family by eloping to Kansas, but her unresolved estrangement from her intolerant sister Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata) still weighs heavily as the early onset of Alzheimer’s forces her to move in with Hiromi. 

Suffused with Japanese aesthetics, Houston’s play may occasionally overreach with sledgehammer symbolism and self-evident platitudes, but it’s a deftly constructed study in ironically contrasting characters. Exile in America has deepened gentle Noriko’s connections to the best  qualities of her heritage in her deeply caring mother-daughter relationship. Back in Japan, Natsuko’s slavish adherence to custom has left her bitter, unfulfilled and all-too willing to smother the  Western-style independent impulses of her own free-spirited daughter (Fran de Leon).

Houston’s intimate focus benefits from moving performances in Jon Lawrence Rivera’s sensitive, finely tuned staging for this joint Playwrights’ Arena–Latino Theatre Company/LATC production. “Calligraphy” is not  a play about huge events, but the emotional stakes are high as Hiromi and her cousin try to bring about a face-to-face reconciliation between their feuding mothers while there’s still time. 

–- Philip Brandes

“Calligraphy,” Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 12. $30 (Thursdays $10). (866) 811-4111 or Running time: 2 hours.

Photo: Emily Kuroda and Melody Butiu. Credit: Ed Krieger.