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Two generations of women deal with family and cultural obligations

Calligraphy tells a story we’ve heard before, but colors it with a compelling specificity. Photo credit: Jason Ganwich

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There are some works of fiction that gain their power through bravado, high-density dialogue, spectacle, or pyrotechnic productions. Others, though, find strength, and lasting resonance, in closely observing human stories that somehow access universal empathy through specificity. Calligraphy is, at its bare bones, a story I've seen before: a grown-up child is made to care for their ailing parent, flipping the script that most of us are given at birth, and echoing experiences that many of us will find ourselves in.

This play, though, written by Velina Hasu Houston, is so deeply rooted in her unique experiences that it frequently feels like something wholly new. First and foremost, this a story of a woman's relationship with her mother, but it also is steeped in elements of the immigrant story, of struggling to reconcile your heritage's traditions with the looser expectations of American life. At the heart of it all are Hiromi (Amy Van Mechelen) and Noriko (Eloisa Cardona), daughter and mother. Noriko, a Japanese woman, gave birth to Hiromi after marrying an African-American WWII soldier (Charles Reccardo); after the three move to Kansas, Hiromi grows up with one foot in Japanese culture and the other in American culture.

Hiromi's father -- Noriko's husband -- has recently passed away, leaving the two of them alone with seemingly unlimited prospects for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, Noriko's memory quickly starts to deteriorate, leaving Hiromi to take the lead. It's here where the Japanese notion of filial piety -- the Asian tradition of respecting and caring for one's elders -- becomes something of a conflict for Hiromi. Meanwhile, in Japan, Hiromi's cousin Sayuri (Tomoko Saito) is also tasked with taking care of her coarse mother Natsuko (Joy Misako St. Germain), after she injures herself spying on the hot neighbor boy.

In this stark frame, Dukesbay Production's staging of Calligraphy is strongest in its warm performances and narrowly observed moments: the interplay between Hiromi and Noriko will be instantly recognizable to anyone that's seen a child care for their parent, with the shift in power dynamics being particularly problematic. Cardona, tasked with the most difficult of roles, ably bounces between her addled present day and her girlish youth, as flashbacks to her and her husband's meeting pepper the play. St. Germain, as Noriko's estranged sister, manages to make her character both utterly impossible to deal with, and also strangely endearing. Saito and Reccardo imbue their smaller roles with a great deal of humanity to prop up the themes of the play.

Maria Valenzuela returns to Dukesbay to direct this production, and once again turns in a show that offers a different perspective than what is typically offered in theaters around here. Multiculturalism is not just a fact of the casting, but a fundamental aspect of the show itself, and it navigates subjects like a mixed-race woman dealing with old-fashioned culture in a way that's both delicate and pointed. Taken at face value, Calligraphy is a small story of family, but there exists a larger story about the way we all relate to one another.

Calligraphy, 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m., Sunday, through Nov. 12, $15, Dukesbay Theater, 508 6th Ave.,

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