Based on a quick look around the audience, there were no more than two empty seats at the opening of “Calligraphy” at Dukesbay Theater.
That’s as it should be, because Dukesbay offers Tacoma something few other area theaters do: excellent comedy and drama presented by an ethnically diverse cast — ethnic diversity being a prime mission of Dukesbay.
“Calligraphy,” an intense drama centered on a Japanese-American family, proves no one culture has a monopoly on dramatic intensity and complexity of plot, characters and relationships.
Except for the intentional ethnic specificity, “Calligraphy” could easily be taken for a contemporary comic drama by Israel Horovitz or Tennessee Williams or even Edward Albee.
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As with Horovitz’s depictions Massachusetts fishermen, Williams’s decadent Southerners or the vicious academicians in Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” playwright Velina Hasu Houston presents a satisfying drama sprinkled with comedy as an intense picture of place and time.
“Calligraphy” offers something that is the goal of much of theater: universality presented through specific and identifiable characters and situations.
Noriko Jameson (Eloisa Cardona) is a Japanese woman living in Los Angeles with her single, mid-30s daughter Hiromi (Amy Van Mechelen). Years ago, she had married an African-American soldier, Eamon Jameson (Charles Reccardo) and moved to America. Eamon has recently passed away, and Noriko is just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which she adamantly denies.
Her older sister, Natsuko (Joy Misako St. Germain) still lives in Japan, as does her daughter, Sayuri (Tomoko Saito). The cross-Pacific cousins keep in touch via the internet, and emotional family ties play out on their computers and between mothers and daughters on the two continents.
Reccardo, the only male actor in the play, appears as Eamon in flashback memories, and as an unrelated American policeman whom Noriko mistakes as her dead husband.
The small cast if terrific. Van Mechelen underplays the complex character of the supportive daughter and sometimes antagonistic cousin. St. Germain is strong in the role of the autocratic older sister who has a few surprises up her sleeve.
Saito almost overplays overly exuberant Sayuri, who comes across almost as a willful teenager even though she is creeping up on middle age. She throws herself into the role with enthusiasm and is a delight to watch.
Reccardo is charming as the young soldier and appropriately caring and somewhat confused as the policeman. He comes across as totally natural and believable in both roles.
And finally, Cardona is a marvel to watch as she plays the complex and nuanced role of a woman slipping into dementia. Her flashback scenes with Eamon are sweet and touching, and her scenes of anger and confusion as she loses her touch on reality are gripping.
The action takes place on an elegant and minimalist set designed by Burton Yuen. The show is skillfully directed by Maria Valenzuela.
“Calligraphy” runs 90 minutes with no intermission.
Check Alec’s blog at alecclayton.blogspot.com for reviews of other area theatrical productions.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Nov. 10, Nov. 11; 2 p.m. Sunday and Nov. 12
Where: Dukesbay Theater in the Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave. No. 10, Tacoma
Information: dukesbaycalligraphy.brownpapertickets.com; 253-350-7680