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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 26, 2010

Disarming 'Appalachia' a work in progress

Special to The Advertiser


Earle Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawai'i

8 p.m. today, tomorrow; 2 p.m. Sunday




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The new play by Terri Large Madden at the University of Hawai'i Lab Theatre is a curious mixture. Just when we start to feel smug about its stereotypes and predictable plot points, "Appalachia Hawaii" will pop out a line of dialogue or a bit of physical business that is both surprising and charming.

Madden's 1970s setting finds cultural parallels between a transplanted military family with roots in Appalachia and a native Hawaiian family thrown together by the unexpected pregnancy of their teenage children.

Grace Stanley is the daughter of an Army colonel recently assigned to Fort Shafter. Kawika De Souza is the young son of working parents who both claim ali'i lineages.

Both families have experienced poverty and hard work, but the quarrelsome Stanleys favor abortion for their daughter while the inclusive De Souzas welcome the unborn child. Each family, additionally, is blessed with an insightful grandmother (Jo Pruden and Jodie Yamada) who steadies the action with short monologues and delivers the best lines.

"If you want to know the truth, never ask your mother. She'll just tell you what she thinks you ought to hear. Your grandmother will tell you what she thinks you want to hear. Your great-grandmother will tell you the truth."

But such crafted epigrams aren't enough to steady the course of young love (unexplainably lacking in young lust) which tumbles along like a mechanical boat through controlled rapids. Even there, physical jokes appear like pop-up greeting cards.

Just when we'd like to demand that director Brett Botbyl remove the ever-present toothpick from the Colonel's lips, the Army officer offers one to the Hawaiian Dad and the pair upstage the dialogue with a game of dueling toothpick maneuvers.

Similarly, the young couple (Gretta Stimson and Lester Nino) become charmingly childlike on their wedding night when they discover a troll doll beside their bed and use it to overcome their shyness.

Generally, however, the script delivers too much that is obvious, suggests secrets that are never followed up, and drops in a conclusion that radically alters the main character's path in the play's last three minutes.

Even the quilting metaphor promoted by the grandmothers seems appended to the play, rather than integral to it.

"Appalachia Hawaii" is best seen as a work in progress, somewhat rough and raw, but illustrating what elements could be cut and which need more shaping and development.