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When a trip to Hawaii isn't paradise: Playwrights’ Arena's ‘Southernmost’

When a trip to Hawaii isn't paradise: Playwrights’ Arena's ‘Southernmost’
The Playwrights' Arena cast of "Southernmost," clockwise from left: Alberto Isaac, Aaron Ikeda, Kimberly Alexander, Sharon Omi and Amielynn Abellera. (Kelly Stuart)

The locale of “Southernmost,” presented by Playwrights’ Arena in Atwater Village, is as compelling as any character in Mary Lyon Kamitaki’s entertaining but limited new play.

Naalehu on the Big Island of Hawaii is distinguished as the southernmost town in the United States. For some, Naalehu may be paradise, but for Charlene (Amielynn Abellera), it was a suffocating backwater. She fled for San Francisco, her current home.

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Charlene has reluctantly returned to Naalehu for the first time in five years with her lover, Jessica (Kimberly Alexander), who is anxious to meet Charlene’s parents before she and Charlene marry.

Charlene almost immediately regrets the visit, despite a warm welcome from her loving mother, Becky (Sharon Omi), and goofy family friend Bruce (Aaron Ikeda). Charlene’s problem lies with her stubborn father, Wally (Alberto Isaac), whose hard-headedness takes on lethal implications when a volcano erupts and Wally refuses to evacuate. This is where he was born, Wally says, and this is where he intends to die. However, if the lava flow blocks the only road out of town, he may get his wish sooner than later.

The exotic elements in “Southernmost” are well-served by Lily Bartenstein’s lighting and Jesse Mandapat’s sound, though Justin Huen’s set seems more like a stripped-down barracks than a convincing family home, however tropical or remote.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera, the founding artistic director of Playwrights’ Arena, handles the ample comedy with a light hand, but he has a tougher time with the attempts at poignancy. Kamitaki’s boilerplate characters lack the essential coloration that would help them arrive at a singular point of catharsis the audience could fully share.

The strain between Charlene and Jessica is problematic, particularly initially, although Abellera and Alexander hit their stride in subsequent scenes. And what exactly in Wally’s past has made him so hidebound? A clue or two would be helpful. It’s also odd that Bruce is the most full-fledged character, despite the fact that he is the most peripheral to the plot.

In a delightfully no-frills portrayal, Omi taps into mom Becky’s essential simplicity and sweetness — just the right tack for a role that could have turned one-note. In all, a bit more back story could do wonders to deepen Kamitaki’s promising play, which, at present, falls short of its full potential.

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‘Southernmost’

Where: Playwrights’ Arena at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays, through April 29. Also 4 p.m. April 20

Tickets: $30-$40

Info: (800) 838-3006, playwrightsarena.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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