Some of the strongest moments in "Mother Tongue" at the East West Players occur, remarkably enough, in scenes depicting a college English professor teaching a freshman class how to punctuate.
The professor (Alberto Isaac) may be personally burned out, but he still has the classroom touch. The play's thematic metaphor emerges at the end, following a jaunty blackboard discourse on the use of ellipsis marks. The three chalky dots, representing the omissions and incompletenesses in the professor's life, creep up on you in the embattled professor's last words: "language is . . . " and fade out to curtain.
What playwright Paul Stephen Lim is dramatizing--and very cleverly--is both the failure of language in a modern world and the disconnection of the professor/protagonist who has always been a stranger, in his birthplace and in his adopted land. His life is an ellipsis.
There are three mother tongues in this play--Chinese, English and the angry tongue of the professor's accusatory mother (Estelle Bennett). She figures prominently in the form of memories and flashbacks that haunt the life of an overseas Chinese from the Philippines who is homosexual and possibly alcoholic, and a teacher/writer in the mid-'80s suffering from writer's block at the University of Kansas.
In broad outline, the play is autobiographical. Like the play's central figure, playwright Lim is of Chinese descent, born and raised in the Philippines. He emigrated to the United States to write and teaches English at the University of Kansas. The director, Paul Hough, nicely balances the play's mix of Asian and Kansan milieus (Nathan Wong's sound design is heartland radio world). And Hough draws a terrific performance from Bennett as the punitive mother figure who won't go away.
As the divided professor--a cultural alien all his life who is now almost touchingly seeking American naturalization--actor Isaac is empathic, forlorn, and too likable ever to be depressing. His brief teaching scenes (to an unseen class) are standouts.
Isaac's character, though, needs more presence. Essentially, Lim has written an intellectual hero (often a danger in personal works) who is too interior and reactive to be vivid. There are homosexual motifs that bring dimension, however: particularly a nervous, edgy scene with a bold American student (strongly played by Gavin Gannon), accompanied by a fantasy guilt trip from shouting mother--"Why is that boy always following you around?" Also helpful are deft, artfully structured depictions of an old and now shattered male relationship (Gene R. Touchet, in reverie sequences).
But the staging could be cleaner. Some of the expressionistic blocking, with the seven-member cast alternately materializing from different corners in director Hough's classroom/office set design, is awkward and too intricate for its own good. The shape of this production, despite strong focus from lighting designer Rae Creevey, needs more fluidity.
Jane Ellen and Diane Dorsey are effective in multiple roles, but Kathryn Lee, playing the professor's Chinese mother at a young and more traditional stage of her life, gives a pale, one-note performance.
This West Coast premiere is a particularly timely play, if not for Kansas, certainly California. It could be an important play. In its observation of rootlessness and personal nirvana, it catches the new melting pot, where some immigrants are even strangers to the countries they left behind.
Performances run at 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7:30 p.m., through March 6. Tickets: $12. (213) 660-0366.