"If not understanding was a crime, we'd all be guilty." Here is the humanist core of "Innocent When You Dream" at the Electric Lodge, and it brushes with greatness. With a tweak or two, Ken Narasaki's inventive, affecting account of a Japanese American war veteran caught between past and present could soar into the pantheon. It's certainly worthy and original enough.
Meet protagonist Dan (the memorable Sab Shimono), a senior in crisis mode. Sneaking out of his nursing home, Dan seeks out a seedy bar with wartime associations. The lighting by Christopher M. Singleton goes akimbo, a pounding heartbeat dominates Dennis Yen's soundtrack and Dan collapses under the weight of a massive stroke. From here, "Innocent" takes off from inside Dan's head, leaping between his hospital room and key pieces of his memory puzzle. While his third generation children -- civil rights activist Joy (Emily Kuroda, atop her game) and estranged son Merv (author Narasaki) -- struggle to interpret his wishes, Dan revisits the internment camps, the 422nd Regimental Combat Team and, crucially, Grace (the superb Sharon Omi), the enigmatic woman who eluded his advances. His trek between now and then thus unfolds like an inverted origami to the cosmic finale.
Director Alberto Isaac takes an austere approach, stylized yet naturalistic, which yields arresting results, especially the transitions on designer Mina Kinukawa's abstract set, aided by John J. Flynn's invaluable videos. The cast, which includes John Miyasaki and Mike Hagiwara, mines Narasaki's text for all its humor and considerable emotional heft. But it's all about Shimono, whose beautifully shaded performance rivals Alan Mandell's celebrated "Trying" turn in its physical eloquence and empathy with Omi.
Although the right-to-die element needs better integration, it's a good counterpoint to the geopolitical issues, which emerge without didacticism. Narasaki could also consider more Act 1 foreshadowing of how Dan and Grace's secrets intersect. Yet the virtues of this elegantly moving parable outweigh such quibbles. Susceptible viewers should bring Kleenex.
'Innocent When You Dream'
Where: Electric Lodge Performance Space, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: Oct. 28
Contact: (800) 838-3006 or www.BrownPaperTickets.com
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes