Calligraphy

Many plays have dealt with the problems of aging parents, Alzheimer's, and personal responsibility, but playwright Velina Hasu Houston views them through a different lens: the Japanese-American experience. Houston focuses on two cousins: Japanese Sayuri (Fran de Leon), who lives in Tokyo, and Japanese-American Hiromi (Melody Butiu) who lives in Los Angeles with her American husband and their children. Both feel their lives are dogged by the strict traditions of Bushido and Meiji—which emphasize loyalty, obedience, duty, filial piety, and self-sacrifice. But each cousin responds in very different ways. Sayuri, though she grew up in Japan, has embraced American values, including beer, blond wigs, and personal freedom, while Hiromi, though raised in America, has retained her Japanese thought and feeling.

Hiromi and Sayuri hope to arrange a family reunion and reconcile their mothers, who, though sisters, are long estranged. Hiromi's mother, Noriko (Emily Kuroda), raised to be a traditional Japanese woman, and a devotee of the art of calligraphy, has met and fallen in love with an African-American GI, Eamon (Kevin Daniels), who was serving in Japan. She has married him and moved with him to the American Midwest. But sister Natsuko (Jeanne Sakata) has always resented Noriko, whom she regards as "the pretty one, the one everybody loved." She wrongly suspects that Noriko has seduced her husband, and is imbued with racial prejudice against Eamon. She has embraced her malice and resentment, and unleashed her talent for manipulation and her gleefully acid tongue. Now both women's husbands are dead. Natsuko has become bitter, querulous and demanding, while Noriko is succumbing to Alzheimer's disease. The two cousins manage to bring about the family reunion, but the results are decidedly mixed.

Houston tells a complex, subtle tale, and director Jon Lawrence Rivera skillfully unravels the tangled skein of cultural/familial pressures. He also elicits fine performances from his ensemble cast. Sakata vividly portrays the sister whose nature has been corroded by jealousy and resentment, while Kuroda captures the comedy and pathos of a woman who must face her own diminishing powers. DeLeon distills the essence of the Americanized Sayuri, who has embraced a ruthless cynicism and rootlessness, while Butiu captures the desperation of a woman trying to juggle responsibilities toward husband, children, work, and an increasingly helpless mother. Daniels finds the charm of a brash GI wooing a woman from an alien culture.

Ann Sheffield's handsome set combines utility with the spare elegance of Japanese art, and Drew Bird's costumes usefully blend Japanese and American elements.

Presented by Playwrights' Arena and the Latino Theater Company at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A. Nov. 12-Dec. 12. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (Dark Thu., Nov. 25). (866) 811-4111. www.thelatc.org.