Theater Review: SOUTHERNMOST (Playwrights’ Arena)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on April 8, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


When you walk into the theater for playwright Mary Lyon Kamitaki’s Southernmost, Justin Huen’s scenic design transports you immediately into another world: An indoor-outdoor ramshackle house in Naalehu, on the coast of a largely unpopulated area on the Big Island of Hawaii. It is the southernmost inhabited space in the United States. If at close inspection it seems the set didn’t cost much, that only adds to the cleverness of Mr. Huen’s work here.

At rise we meet Wally, an aging retired fisherman, who, against the wishes of his wife, Becky, is starting a new venture, coffee farming, with his friend Bruce. Wally and Becky’s daughter, Charlene, arrives for a visit from the Bay Area with her fiancée Jessica after being away for five years. Though her family seems nominally accepting of her sexual orientation, Charlene feels she needs to hide the true nature of her relationship with Jessica as well as their pending nuptials.

The crux of the human drama revolves around identity, though the same-sex issue is something of a red herring. Charlene isn’t hiding from her parents, but from Jessica. How she grew up in Naalehu, how she is with her family, and her identity in Hawaii are things she put behind her once she started college on the mainland. She was an entirely new, different person when she met the white, liberal, privileged Jessica.

Charlene’s emotional turbulence is accompanied, both figuratively and literally, by a volcanic eruption. The lava flow may or may not reach them within a day or two. The women want to flee. The men want to stay. Wally believes that his love of the land and respect for Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes and fire, and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands, will save them from doom.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera inventively keeps things urgent and believable. This isn’t an adventure story, yet whether the characters will get out alive is the narrative meat of the evening. Sound designer Jesse Mandapat and lighting designer Lily Bartenstein do marvelous work making the environmental conditions feel dangerously real.

The cast is quite good. Sharon Omi is particularly effective as Becky, making the character into a powerhouse of strength and courage, even while showing us how Becky puts Wally’s wishes before her own. Aaron Ikeda does a wonderful series of takes as Bruce, where upon initially considering something riotously impossible (like Charlene being a lesbian) he turns on a dime, immediately musing that whatever seemed impossible a moment ago might be entirely possible after all.

As Charlene and Jessica, Amielynn Abellera and Kimberly Alexander are playful and loving, but the script calls for them to make some big emotional and logical leaps that don’t always come off. Would Charlene really switch into her childhood accent so abruptly and treat Jessica like an inept child? Would Jessica really have so little understanding of Charlene’s feelings of shame? The visit becomes a series of “issues” for them and we don’t get enough of a chance to see them in repose. What are they like together away from the prying eyes of an audience?

The emotional engine of the show is powered by Wally’s fears and stubborn belief that he must stay in Naalehu at all costs and beyond all reason. Alberto Isaac makes Wally by turns endearingly funny, irascible, and impossible. That you end up wanting to smack Wally on the head seems entirely by design.

Ms. Kamitaki constructs the play with a sure sense of place and character. She is a native Hawaiian but that is not the sum of her understanding of how a vanishing way of life affects the people who don’t want change. She is not afraid to let Wally and Becky appear funny, occasionally ridiculous even, trusting that we will appreciate them for their indelible humanity and love.

I like these people and could imagine spending more time with them. I mean no disrespect to suggest that they ultimately might seem more at home in a television comedy than on a live stage. The drama of the impending lava flow gives us little time to explore Charlene’s revelations about how she feels like two different people, the one her parents raised, and the one Jessica fell in love with. Lava will eventually stop flowing. Charlene’s emotional confusion could last a lifetime.

photos by Kelly Stuart

Playwrights’ Arena
Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave.
Mon and Sat at 8; Sun at 4; Sat at 4 (April 20)
ends on April 29, 2019 EXTENDED to May 6, 2019
for tickets, call 800.838.3006 or visit Playwrights Arena

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