Dukesbay Theater’s ‘Calligraphy’ explores mother-daughter relationship

(left to right) Tomoks Saito, Joy Misako St. Germain, Eloisa Cardona and Amy Van Mechelen perform as members of a family that is rooted in both Japanese and American culture. Photo by Jason Ganwich

Velina Hasu Houston’s play “Calligraphy” is an exploration of familial relationships — between sisters, mothers and daughters, cousins and aunts and nieces. The family ties are extended between cultures (Japanese, American, African American) and exert a strong hold, despite separations of time and space. The story bounces between Junction City, Kan., Los Angeles, Calif. and several locations in Japan. The audience is also provided glimpses and scenes of the family running from post-WWII Japan to contemporary times.

In essence, the play is about two sisters Natsuko Matsuda (Joy Misako St. Germain) and Noriko Jameson (Eloisa Cardona), who came of age in the midst of war-ravaged Japan. The two had been close, but when Noriko marries a young African American soldier — Eamon Jameson (Charles Reccardo) — and follows him back to the United States, Natsuko disowns her.

Charles Reccardo and Tomoko Saito play out a memory of courtship, witnessed by Noriko (Cardona), who looks on. Photo by Jason Ganwich

The daughters of the two, Sayuri Matsuda (Tomoko Saito) and Hiromi Jameson (Amy Van Mechelen), have taken advantage of communications technology to develop and maintain a close relationship as cousins. Both are somewhat at odds with their own place in the world. Sayuri, in Japan, is thoroughly modernized — a sexually liberated young woman who wants a career and freedom. Hiromi, of mixed race, is very Japanese on the inside. She is intimately familiar with both American and Japanese cultures, yet is also something of an outsider in both.

Each of the daughters are encountered in the midst of dealing with their aging mothers, feeling the weight of filial piety, which is described in the play as “an account that we can never pay off.”

Both mothers have to move close to their daughters and adjustments must be made. Natsuko seems to want to tame her wild daughter Sayuri, and Hiromi must come to grips with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in her mother Noriko. The two cousins, meanwhile, are also trying to orchestrate a reunion of their mothers to see if, at long last, the two sisters might be able to reach some form of reconciliation.

A form of time travel is present as the workings of the Noriko’s Alzheimer’s disease allow for the audience to witness scenes from the romance between Noriko and her recently departed husband Eamon.

The Dukesbay Theater’s production of the play, directed by Maria Valenzuela, brings together a talented cast and inventive set design to make for a work of theatrical art that is both poignant and humorous. The actors all breathe vibrancy into their roles. Cardona, a versatile local actress, is especially versatile as Noriko, who is grappling with the recent death of her husband and the beginnings of Alzheimer’s. Noriko’s practice of the art of calligraphy is also the source of the play’s title.

Misako St. Germain is a delight as the fiery and cynical Natsuko, who harbors animosity towards her younger sister, whom she blames for both the break-up of the family and for the complications existent in her own marriage.

Saito is dynamic as the strong-willed Sayuri, who is torn between loyalty to her mother and the desire to lead her own life.

Van Mechelen is dazzling as Hiromi, the mixed-race child of two cultures, who is the one who is valiantly holding the whole family together even as she works to care for her mother and bring about a reunion of the two estranged sisters.

Reccardo is a tall, calm and gentle presence as both the American soldier and as a Los Angeles police officer.

The set, designed by Burton Yuen and made by Jennifer York and Hector Juarez, provides a Japanese ambience to the production. The main feature is a gigantic plant, made of delicate paper. It is something of a mashup of origami, ikebana and the giant plant from “Little Shop of Horrors.”

“Calligraphy” is a concise illustration of the stated mission of Dukesbay Theater: “To promote independent theatre in Tacoma and to give a voice to artists of all ethnicities.” The diverse cast performing the drama of a family that is multi-cultural is fascinating in telling the story of lives unique to characters in non-typical circumstances. Yet there is so much universal to the human experience here that it can only serve to strengthen the idea that we’re all in this together.

“Calligraphy” runs through Nov. 12, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. The play breezes by in 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $15, which includes coffee or tea and an assortment of baked goods. The Dukesbay Theater is located above the Grand Cinema (side entrance) at 508 S. Sixth Ave. #10. For further information call (253) 350-7680 or visit dukesbay.org/dukesbay-theater.

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