The farthest south you can go in the US is in — Hawai’i. Geographically, anyway. How about culturally?
In Southernmost, playwright Mary Lyon Kamitaki finds issues in island life that we’re used to seeing in the mainland’s Deep South. Family, the land, whether to leave them … plus something you don’t see in Dixie: an angry goddess.
Charlene, who’s gone to college on the mainland, brings fiancée Jessica to meet the folks. But this isn’t a coming-out drama: Her folks have already figured it out. Charlene’s conflicted about “home,” while Jessica, a city-bred haole, likes learning village ways. But this isn’t a tale of culture clash, either.
The story really locates in Wally and Becky, the parents, and their struggle with the angry goddess.
Pele — in the form of nearby Kilauea volcano — starts pouring fiery lava toward the village. Wally, who’s found coffee farming as a way to remain active in retirement, wants to stay and tend his saplings. (He’d like his daughter to join him, but she’s got her return ticket.) Becky, the practical spouse, starts packing as soon as the lava runs. But she’s not sure whether Wally will come or die with his boots on.
This quiet drama, which settles to its center as steadily as lava flows to the sea, gets sure guidance from master director Jon Lawrence Rivera. Justin Huen’s scene design, rural simplicity hiding natural wisdom (like the grass emerging between the floorboards), sets place and tone. And the sound and light (Jesse Mandapat, Lily Bartenstein) create Hawai’ian serenity and Pele’s shocking wrath.
At the center of it all, of course, are the actors. Amielynn Abellera, as Charlene, leads us into the story with ease then begins to fragment in her ambivalences; it’s an intelligent and moving performance. Kimberly Alexander accompanies her with a goodhearted, coltish Jessica who, in crisis, starts gaining a hold on her inner resources.
Sharon Omi lets Becky, like her village setting, gradually reveal the clarity and courage that have always lain beneath her plain surface. And Alberto Isaac’s masterful Wally grows from a delightful comic fellow to a man of tragic proportion — without losing his sense of humor. Aaron Ikeda nicely supports the couple as a loyal and slightly hapless friend.
Like Wally, and the island culture he embodies, this play gives us an aloha — a warm, easygoing welcome. But it also shocks us, with Pele, into feeling the force that disturbed nature (like a disrespected deity) can exert on our lives. And it suggests what we will need to find within ourselves to respond.
Once again, Playwrights’ Arena gives the stage to a promising new LA playwright (from USC’s formidable greenhouse). And with Southernmost, it once again illuminates a previously unknown — but nonetheless important — corner of American life.
Southernmost, by Mary Lyon Kamitaki, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.
Presented by Playwrights’ Arena, at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.
Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 4:00,
and Mondays at 8:00,
through April 29th.