Theater Review : ‘Hiro’: Reaching for Altitude : Play Has Its Charm but Lacks Uplifting Power


What would young playwrights do without dysfunctional families to kick around? In “Hiro,” her new play at the East West Players, 27-year-old Denise Uyehara gives us Hiro (Jeanne Sakata), a young woman who wears a blue spandex unitard with arm and knee protectors because she can fly. Or maybe she’s dead or an apparition, but in any case, she’s come back to Southern California after a 15-year absence to visit what’s left of her family. She killed her dad, or perhaps he slipped off her back when she was flying him around one day. Now she wants to fly with her sister Shell (Freda Foh Shen), who is understandably reticent.

Shell, though, is about to jump off a cliff when Hiro finds her. She drinks too much, dresses a little like Ellie May in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and has mysteriously developed the accent of a Southern belle. Her husband, Ace (Darrell Kunitomi), has taken to mountain climbing, and probably not just for the fresh air.

But if Shell hasn’t done well in Hiro’s absence, her mother also is not a candidate for a career in mental health. Mom, or Queen T (Amy Hill), as she is known, can go from garden-party chit-chat, complete with sidelong glances and a silvery laugh, to full dementia in half a sentence. She greets her long-lost daughter with a stern “Did you vacuum under the credenza?” She invites people to tea by touching her forehead and then waving her hand languorously in the air. But the world takes her madness in stride--not only does the invited guest show up, but the announcer on the radio she is listening to incorporates her suggestions into his program.


The playwright, too, is indulgent of these characters’ eccentricities, somewhat in the fond way of Mary Chase’s Elwood P. Dowd in “Harvey.” But when Uyehara aims for bright, absurdist humor she often hits a cloying whimsy instead. Hiro explains that she flies “ ‘cause this is nowhere, and behind the sky is somewhere!”

You half expect Sammy Davis Jr. to start singing “The Candy Man.” Hiro, though, is no drug addict; she is quite the go-getter. With lines like, “What do I want? I want enchilada pie!” Jeanne Sakata must play her spunky, but her go-get-’em, crooked-elbow stance makes Hiro perky beyond relief. With none of Hill’s endearing weirdness or Foh Shen’s touch of debauchery, Sakata’s Hiro comes off about as subtle and interesting as Mary Lou Retton.

For her part, Shell believes that if you experience boredom for a long enough time, it’s no longer boring. “That’s Zen!” she exclaims, and her embrace of the ordinary is a relief.

The sisters are pitted against each other, as sisters always are, by definitions. Shell is the pretty one, the uninteresting one, the one who stayed home, the one who married Hiro’s old beau Ace. Their rivalry is complicated when Hiro decides to seduce Ace (played by Kunitomi in comic deadpan), who can feel her kiss but is not able to see her. All of this escalates to a knife fight between sisters, a forced denouement to an overheated premise.

The struggle is played out on Devin Meadow’s set, where dead grass, wooden porch and yonder cliff are all washed in the same soothing pale beige. This could theoretically allow the characters and their eccentricities to stand out brightly, but that happens all too rarely.

“Hiro” is not without charm, but Uyehara is striving for something theatrically uplifting that this work does not have the power or the voice to deliver. For one thing, the playwright doesn’t distinguish between Hiro’s professed transcendence over ordinary life and any actual transcendence the character may have achieved. The evening’s true protagonist is Shell; we know this because in the end she can dress normally and reconcile with her husband, but we don’t actually understand why. That lack of clarity is not helped by Roxanne Rogers’ earth-bound direction. Still, there are fleeting moments when one can envision a Uyehara character who one day might really fly.


* “Hiro,” East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Saturday matinees available through special group arrangement. Ends Aug. 20. $20. (213) 660-0366. Running time: 1 hours, 40 minutes. Jeanne Sakata: Hiro

Freda Foh Shen: Shell

Amy Hill: Queen T

Darrell Kunitomi: Ace

An East West Players production. By Denise Uyehara. Directed by Roxanne Rogers. Sets by Devin Meadows. Costumes by Lydia Tanji & Dori Quan. Lights and sound by Keith Endo. Fight director Robert Goodwin. Production manager Dena M. Paponis.