Buoyed by a captivating infusion of Hawaiian and Okinawan songs and dances, this production of Jon Shirota's poignant, life-affirming interracial romance, warmly affirms that even the most tragic heartbreak can be the basis of joyous, personal growth and renewal.

Buoyed by a captivating infusion of Hawaiian and Okinawan songs and dances, this production of Jon Shirota’s poignant, life-affirming interracial romance, warmly affirms that even the most tragic heartbreak can be the basis of joyous, personal growth and renewal. Though director Tim Dang hasn’t solved the problem of the often clunky, mood-diminishing scenic transitions, he wisely paces the ensemble to enhance Keone Young’s deeply effective, introspective performance.

The action kicks off in 1960 at a hilly grave site on Maui, where Japanese-born Yasu (Young) has returned after more than 20 years; his mission is to remove the ashes of his older brother Kama (Michael Hagiwara) and sister-in-law Tsuyu (Dian Kobayashi) from Hawaii and then rebury the couple at the family burial site on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

As the deeply unhappy Yasu sings a lament in tribute to the pair, their ghosts rise to oversee the reclamation of his life-saddened soul.

The activity then moves back and forth between 1960 and the late 1930s, when the overly cautious, class-conscious Yasu was reluctant to commit himself to his love, the exuberant native Hawaiian Leilani (Melody Butiu).

The pair are separated when Japan bombs Pearl Harbor while Yasu is visiting his homeland. The young man is drafted into the Japanese army while his pregnant love is forced by her family to move to Honolulu, where she eventually marries, bearing her lover’s child.

In a cathartic re-examining of themselves and each other in 1960, Yasu and Leilani learn they can forgive the past, while Yasu rediscovers the joy of life in the acceptance he receives from his grown daughter, Emma (Lilia Dominguez).

Keone anchors the production with an intriguing stoicism that communicates a world of emotion with minimal energy. He is balanced beautifully by the sensuous vitality of Butiu, whose performance reflects the monumental loss Yasu has suffered. Dominguez is beautifully effective as Emma, the young woman whose happy life of ignorance is shattered by her father’s presence but can still demonstrate the character and self-confidence to find a place for the man in her heart.

As the hovering ghosts, Hagiwara and Kobayashi are occasionally out of sync with the flow of dialogue as they provide ongoing lighthearted commentary and reflection that balance nicely against the often morose musings of Young’s Yasu.

Shaun Shimoda and Cathleen Chin are credible as Yasu’s Americanized nephew and niece, respectively, who are reluctant to have their parents’ ashes removed.

The designs of Akeime Mitterlehner (set), Rae Creevey (lights), Ken Takemoto (costume) and Robert Shinso (sound) do much to enhance the Maui hillside setting.

Leilani’s Hibiscus

Leilani's Hibiscus

David Henry Hwang Theater; 236 seats; $30 top

Production

East West Players presents a play in two acts by Jon Shirota, directed by Tim Dang.

Cast

Yasu - Keone Young Leilani - Melody Butiu Kama - Michael Hagiwara Tsuyu - Dian Kobayashi Ichiro - Shaun Shimoda Kimiko - Cathleen Chin Emma - Lilia Dominguez
Set design, Akeime Mitterlehner; lighting design, Rae Creevey; costume design/props, Ken Takemoto; sound design, Robert Shinso; Okinawan choreographer, Aiko Majikina; music consultant, Keone Young; Hawaiian hula movement, Casey Kono. Opened Sept. 22; reviewed Sept. 26; runs until Oct. 17. Running time: 1 HOUR, 40 MIN.
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more