By Becca Kurtz
The pair of plays that make up Paul Handy’s “Hawaii Nei” fit together nicely in a 90-minute, fact-packed commentary on the state – both past and present – of the reluctant 50th state. The production, directed by Clare Shaffer, is rather simple. The set in either performance features a white backdrop and some seats for the constantly shifting actors. “The Highest Point of Heaven,” a retelling of the relationship between princess Ka’iulani and author Robert Louis Stevenson, also offers a sonic component of ocean waves that remind you on occasion that you’re outside.
This first of the two stories, “The Highest Point of Heaven,” was charming, but not convincing. Stefany Pesta and Daniel Lakin played exactly the juxtaposed enthusiastic/pensive partnership you would expect of the energetic young leader and the thoughtful dying writer. Yet the scenes of dialogue stretched into what felt more like an eager Disney movie than a heart-wrenching relationship and an impossible decision. Every twist and turn is easily anticipated, and the only aspect of the performance that was new to me was the rich history the script was teaching me.
“Cry for the Gods” is a bit more subtle than its preceding performance. Rather than being jammed with calls for action, Rocelyn Halili and Tom Kearney play out a far more convincing dialogue between the effective modern colonizer and the loyal native. Maybe it was the age of the actors, or the realism of the characters’ expectations, or the crying, but something about this performance gave me more insight into Hawaii than the youthful optimism and cliches of the first. Tom Kearney was permanently smug and did a good job of making sure we hated his character. His entrances and exits, as well as returns to the past, were marked by a tap of the foot, that may not have been necessary since the lighting did most of the work regardless. I did, however, enjoy the use of the backstage as an adjoining room. A character in the foreground seemed truly alone, although the audience knew something was happening behind the white wall. Rocelyn Halili’s performance was incredibly enticing. She played her historically fraught character with poise, sincerity, and passion. It was a goosebumpy half an hour, despite a touch of over-exaggeration that seeped through the trembling lower lips and frantic fidgeting.
All together “The Highest Point of Heaven” followed “Cry for the Gods” into the second half of the production, giving a distinctly proud insight into the unwilling participants in the American Dream. Indeed, the subject matter of both plays is compelling. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know about Hawaii. The chronology of this pair is especially instrumental in conveying the causes and effects of the late nineteenth century’s events. My verdict is that Handy and Shaffer have done the job well if “Kidnapped” by R. L. Stevenson is making its way onto my reading list and “Hawaii pre-1900” is going into my search engine.
Running Time: 90 minutes.