BY WINNIE WONG
Award-winning author Jean Davies Okimoto has crafted a delightful story about the tension between family obligations and self-fulfillment and above all, love, in “Uncle Hideki and The Empty Nest.” This sequel to “Uncle Hideki” had its world premiere on Sept. 14 at the Theatre Off Jackson. The intimate setting of the theatre is ideal for this play, which is driven by quiet dialogue and thrives on both the physical proximity and the emotional connection that the audience feels towards the characters.
In “The Empty Nest,” writer Okimoto continues to focus on artist-mom Helen Suyama, whom we first met in “Uncle Hideki.” Helen, played by Eloisa Cardona, is now retired and looks forward to pursuing art-making full time. As the central character around which the play evolves, it is crucial that Helen comes across as authentic. The good news is that Cardona delivers. She is a superb actress with a highly expressive face and a commanding voice. It does not matter that it has been 10 years since we last heard from her character – the bottom line is that we care about whatever may happen to this woman.
As the play opens, we find that Helen has remarried. She now lives with her husband Jack (Dennis T. Kleinsmith) in a cozy condominium near the heart of downtown. The stage setting – rice cooker, microwave, bamboo plant, and Helen’s minimalist painting – together with the Japanese-influenced score (by Allan Loucks) suggest an existence where cross-cultural influence and mutual acceptance are the norm in this family. But just exactly what type of husband-wife relationship is it? By casting Kleinsmith as the other lead, director David Hsieh has set the tone for the play. Kleinsmith, like Cardona, is a talented actor and every bit her equal. They have chemistry and together they are convincing in their vivid portrayal of a couple who have found real love late in life. So when Jack agrees to let the boorish and bigoted Uncle Hideki (Herb Tsuchiya) – who is intolerant of homosexuals and anyone not Japanese – stay with them, we can appreciate that he has done it out of love for his wife.
“The Empty Nest” also explores familiar territory about self-fulfillment and family obligations. However, there are no boring monologues about conflicting demands. There is no moralizing. Instead, the struggle between family obligations and self-fulfillment is presented visually. As the characters of Helen’s son Rodney (Dom Chan) and his lover Mark (Jamie Erickson), daughter Suzanne (Virginia Gabby), and Hideki weave in and out of the scenes, the ongoing demands of family wax and wane. Some, like the sweet Rodney, represent an obligation that Helen is happy to fulfill; while others, namely Hideki, with his booming voice and physical presence downstage, present a substantial familial burden. Jack, on the other hand, is Helen’s enabler and protector despite his frequently voiced desire to go traveling. He shadows her, prods her to do what she needs and challenges her to soldier on to become the artist that she so desperately wants to be.
The supporting actors are well cast. The performance by Gabby and Erickson are natural and unaffecting. Their characters add to our empathy towards the Suyama family without detracting from Helen’s narrative. I was struck by Chan’s eloquence of speech during the rehearsals. However, I wish he had a more forceful presence at times. Tsuchiya’s cranky and self-centered Hideki is in turns deadly serious and outright hilarious. It is Tsuchiya’s ability to induce laughter even at his most boorish that suggests, perhaps, Hideki has a softer side to him after all.
Compared to the finely wrought Helen, the characterization of Hideki is enigmatic. Hideki’s character could be developed more fully and the root of his mean-spiritedness better explained. But, overall, as a thoughtful story about love and self-fulfillment, the highly entertaining “Uncle Hideki and The Empty Nest” has succeeded beautifully.
“Uncle Hideki and The Empty Nest,” presented by the Repertory Actors Theatre, runs through Oct. 8 at Theatre Off Jackson (409 Seventh Ave S). For more information or to purchase tickets, call (206) 364-3283 or go to www.reacttheatre.org.