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Review: 'The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back' charms

November 18, 2013|By Margaret Gray
  • Meeting their new yoga instructor (Tui Asau), the aging members of "The Nisei Widows Club" (Emily Kuroda, June Kyoko Lu, Takayo Fischer and Jeanne Sakata) brandish an AARP card.
Meeting their new yoga instructor (Tui Asau), the aging members of "The… (Michael Lamont )

Four popular characters introduced by East West Players in “The Nisei Widows Club” (2003) and “The Nisei Widows Club Holiday on Ice” (2004) return for a new comic adventure directed by Amy Hill: “The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back.”

The now elderly widows (Nisei are the American-born children of Japanese immigrants) are rallying around Tomi (Jeanne Sakata), whose only son has died. Sumi (Takayo Fischer), Hana (Emily Kuroda) and Betty (June Kyoko Lu) look for new activities that will push all four of them out of their comfort zone. They try yoga, then travel to Hawaii to learn the hula.

Coyly attributed to "Betty Tokudani," all three plays were written by Tim Dang (East West’s producing artistic director), Marilyn Tokuda and Denise Iketani. The four accomplished actresses reprise their original roles. It's a cozy, neighborhood affair: Between tart zingers and complaints about the indignities of aging, the widows discuss Little Tokyo restaurants, organizations and controversies (they disapprove of MOCA). The response on opening night reaffirmed how gratifying it can be for an underrepresented community to encounter its members onstage. For everyone else, it opens a window onto L.A.’s Japanese American culture.

And the widows are delightful. Although this play is apparently their final episode, it's easy to imagine the widows as east-side Golden Girls eternally bringing their malfunctioning hearing aids, confessions of irritable bowel syndrome and cranky banter to sitcom scenarios (at the DMV, learning to fly a plane, mistaken for drug smugglers, etc.).

Their foils here are Patrick, a handsome, young yoga teacher; and Kimo, a handsome, young hula teacher (both played by Tui Asau, who dances beautifully to the choreography of Keali'i Ceballos). Lascivious Tomi ogles Patrick, but when he asks if his new students have any physical ailments, she joins the other three in cacophonously listing sore joints.

Eventually, the combination of sitcom-style one-liners and pat revelations (“Loss is so hard”; “We take life for granted sometimes.”) with the unfocused, meandering plot risks straining even a favorably disposed audience’s patience.

Other than to showcase the strong work of scenic designer Tesshi Nakagawa and costume designer Dori Quan, it’s not clear why both the widows’ first yoga class and their first hula lesson are presented in full; neither scene contains real conflict nor deepens our understanding of the characters nor advances the story. The humor stales with repetition.

Even so, anybody who has felt a pang of loss at the closing credits of a sitcom will understand the playwrights' impulse to give their audience a leisurely last visit with the endearing Nisei widows. 


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"The Nisei Widows Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back," David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (some exceptions, call for complete schedule). Ends Dec. 8. $26-$36. (213) 625-7000 or Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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