Review: ‘Fireflies’ a quietly moving tale

Jan. 30, 2013 | 0 Comments

REVIEW BY RYAN SENAGA / Special to the Star-Advertiser

Plot-wise, Daniel Akiyama’s first full-length play, “A Cage of Fireflies,” is a hard sell: Three elderly Okinawan sisters have some major drama in their house, and that’s that.

‘A Cage of Fireflies’

Presented by Kumu Kahua Theatre

» Where: Kumu Kahua Theatre, 46 Merchant St.
» When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 24
» Cost: $10-$20
» Information: 536-4441 or www.kumukahua.org

And unlike “The Golden Girls,” there are no campy one-liners to tickle audiences. But hopefully the unglamorous premise won’t put off theatergoers, because “Fireflies” is one the most fragile, heartbreaking and quietly uplifting local plays to grace the islands in years.

Unmarried Yukiko and Kimiko live in a small Honolulu apartment near a freeway, and their days are ruled by routine. In the morning, Kimiko, the youngest sister, makes breakfast for herself and Yukiko, the eldest sister. They then proceed to sew clothes for their middle sister, Mitsuko, who comes to visit like clockwork on the first Saturday of each month.

One morning, though, Mitsuko comes on a different day (oh, the horror for the rigid Yukiko!) with a favor to ask. Since her husband’s relative is coming to stay in her guest room, Mitsuko would like her sisters to baby-sit their late mother’s heirloom kimonos for a couple of weeks — and all understated hell proceeds to break loose among the women like a paper bag of andagi with an oil-saturated bottom.

The play was developed at the 2012 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, and the polish definitely shows. Through Aki­yama’s masterfully careful writing, the audience slowly discovers the buried resentments each of the sisters has held against one another for so long, and it all ties back to their individual memories of their Okinawan past.

Themes of racial and cultural identity, family piety, xenophobia and old versus new traditions are all visited. Although the background is decidedly hard-core Uchi­nan­chu (Okinawan), non-Okinawan Asians will be reminded of their families as well. In fact, even non-Asians will find the questions of identity and the tragedy of wasted lives impossible not to relate to.

The performances by the actresses — Dian Koba­ya­shi (Kimiko), Karen Yama­moto Hackler (Mitsuko) and Kat Koshi (Yukiko) — are nuanced and moving. Each brings her either stoic, pleasantly servile or overtly “Hawaiian-ized” character to vibrant life.

Also a tremendous help is the direction by Phyllis S.K. Look. Some scenes have subtle recurring motifs that pack unexpectedly devastating punches. At one point the action of offering a pot of tea is practically a threat with a weapon. Just as silently powerful are the simple lights shining on the darkened stage as each scene fades into the other; they are the fireflies from the sisters’ childhood that soon become significant.

Lloyd S. Riford III deserves mention for creating a kitchen/dining area set that feels genuinely inhabited.

In the end, however crass and inappropriate the comparison may be, Akiyama has created what could be the Okinawan equivalent of “The Joy Luck Club.” And that’s an extremely good thing.

One can’t help but eagerly await his next work. Possibly a movie version of “A Cage of Fireflies”? It would be a wonder to see this Sundance-enhanced play developed into a riveting yet delicate indie film.

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