Calling Aphrodite,” a tale of tragedy and personal redemption, opens in Hiroshima on the morning of the U.S. atomic bomb attack in 1945. The second act moves to 1955, at which time the scarred Keiko (Kym Hoy) and Shizuko (Vivian Bang) have been shunned by Japanese society and forced to live in the basement of a church orphanage. Velina Hasu Houston underscores the horrific emotional journey her protagonists make to find the peace and confidence to live out their lives. Helmer Shashin Desai neatly entwines a talented five-member ensemble despite Houston’s overuse of a creaky philosophical device that clouds the dramatic throughline.
Keiko is a beautiful, haughtily self-serving maiden who is determined to run off to find her Japanese soldier boyfriend. A lover of all things Western, Keiko is counseled on the true meaning of love by her imaginary muse, Aphrodite (Brenda Hattingh). Challenging Keiko’s plans and ideals is her hard-working, less- attractive younger sister Shizuko, who has lived her life in Keiko’s shadow.
In a wonderfully focused perf, Hoy projects the assuredness of a woman proud of her own attractiveness and the immaturity of a girl who doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Her philosophical debates with Hattingh’s Aphrodite adequately give voice to her thoughts, but the device quickly becomes tedious, despite Hattingh’s emotionally enveloping, earth mother approach to the role.
What does work excellently is Hoy’s highly charged, contentious relationship with her sister, thanks in major part to the relentless fury projected by Bang’s Shizuko. The younger sibling’s seething amalgam of sorrow, contempt and outrage at the selfishness of Keiko strikes with near physical force.
The atom blast itself is choreographed within the horrifically compelling production designs of Jeremy Pivnick (lights), Glen A. Dunsweiler (sound), Kevin O’Brien (visuals), and the searing vocalizations of Hoy and Bang. It is a tangible relief when the event finally recedes to blackness and silence.
When the second act moves to 1955, a new play begins. Keiko and Shizuko are not the women they once were, neither physically nor spiritually. Keiko rebuffs the pleadings of lifelong family friend Dr. Matsubayashi (Blake Kushi) and American plastic surgeon Dr. Everett (Barry Lynch) to receive reconstructive surgery in the U.S., then relents when her sister Shizuko, who has become a devout Christian, pleads with Keiko to accompany her to New York.
Although the sisters’ physical scars are merely insinuated with a modicum of makeup and lighting, Hoy and Bang imbue their characterizations with deep anguish and sorrow, giving added veracity to the situation of Keiko and Shizuko when they arrive in New York.
Scripter then turns the work over to the contentious relationship between Keiko and Dr. Everett, a formerly embittered battle surgeon who lost his son in the war. Lynch offers a compelling perf as the conflicted physician who finds himself altered as much by his desire to win over Keiko as by the humanitarian work he is doing.
The only distraction from this persuasive Keiko/Dr. Everett pas de deux is the re-emergence of Aphrodite. Once again, in an effort to give voice to Keiko’s re-birth as a caring and hopeful soul, scripter Houston overuses this ponderous device.