"Hapa" (Hawaiian for "half") is the term that applies to a person of mixed-race ancestry, particularly one of Asian or Pacific Islander extraction.
Half-Japanese playwright Leah Nanako Winkler, who grew up in Lexington, Ky., explores her own hapa heritage as a starting point for her often playful, sometimes ponderous comedy-drama "Kentucky," now in its West Coast premiere at East West Players.
The action centers on emotionally damaged Hiro (Jessica Jade Andres), who fled her particularized pathology in Kentucky almost a decade ago for the sheltering anonymity of New York City. Now, Hiro's younger sister, Sophie (Jacqueline Misaye), is getting married — a union that Hiro considers a huge mistake for one so young.
Long estranged from her family, Hiro rushes back to Kentucky to prevent the wedding, but in doing so, she must confront not only her born-again sister but also her emotionally abusive father, James (James B. Harnagel), and her downtrodden mother, Masako (Dian Kobayashi), who is not so much a doormat as a sponge, absorbing James' violent outbursts without a murmur.
The play commences as the cast, clad in Lena Sands' wittily tacky costumes, performs a musical number sung to the tune of "My Old Kentucky Home" — an ironic counterpoint emphasizing that, for Hiro, this "home" is a minefield of painful memories that she traverses at grave risk to her already fragile psyche. It's a frolicsome opener that segues into a series of often episodic scenes — some of which seem pointedly extraneous to the action — dealing with Hiro's comically disastrous homecoming.
Unfortunately, director Deena Selenow fails to smooth over the plot irregularities in a ponderously paced staging that unfailingly emphasizes the twee. Hammering away at Winkler's offbeat humor with destructive force, Selenow frequently reduces the play's potential quirkiness to caricature.
The cast, which includes Mel Hampton, Megan Therese Rippey, Daniel Rubiano, Christian Telesmar and Jenapher Zheng, is an appealing and skillful crew that displays formidable finesse in tackling the baffling motivations of their arguably overwritten characters. The standout of this production is Kobayashi, whose wistful, woeful Masako shows glints of genuine fire and strength underneath her outward submissiveness.
To her credit, Winkler never condescends to her Southerners — a welcome departure from other recent playwrights who fetishize their characters' regionalisms. The characters in "Kentucky" may be wildly eccentric and speak with a twang, but they are otherwise people, coping as best they can with the detritus of disappointed lives. Given a more assured staging, one suspects that this "Kentucky" could more effectively express the soaring musicality of a colorful and misunderstood state.
Where: David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; ends Dec. 11.
Information: (213) 625-7000, www.eastwestplayers.org
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
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