The Teahouse of the August Moon

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The very smart and funny “Teahouse of the August Moon” is performed with wit and cleverness at the Hale Centre Theatre in West Valley, causing many of us to wonder why John Patrick’s Tony Award-winner doesn’t get performed more often.

Set in Okinawa just after World War II, the play deals with the United States’ effort to bring democracy to the island and to teach the locals American ideals. Captain Fisby (Eric Jensen) is sent to the small village of Tobiki, along with a native translator named Sakini (Joey Miyashima).

Fisby is at first put off by the quaint and primitive customs of the Okinawans — particularly when he is given a Geisha girl (Sandy A. Jensen) as a gift — but they grow on him, and soon he’s acting like a native.

This distresses his supervisor, the blustery Col. Purdy Wainwright (David Phillips), who sends an Army psychologist (Mike Brown; double-cast with Cody K. Carlson) to check on Fisby’s mental health.

There’s gentle satire in this play, mostly at the expense of ethno-centric Americans, who always assume their way is the best way. When none of the soldiers will buy the painstakingly crafted ceramics or other well-made trinkets of the Tobikians, Fisby has them start making the one thing he knows G.I.s will buy: liquor.

Few plays treat foreign cultures with as great respect as this one, which is especially noteworthy considering it was written in 1953, when reverence for the Japanese and their culture was not exactly at its pinnacle.

Yet, it’s not preachy or moralizing. The Okinawans are not put on a pedestal. They are shown to be at times silly, jealous and petty — in other words, regular people.

It’s exactly that kind of attitude that makes their culture come across as fascinating and dignified in this production, thanks also to clear directing from David Nieman and winning, honest performances from the lead actors.

Miyashima is charming as Sakini, who also narrates the play. An improvisational actor at heart, Miyashima could be seen on a recent night making fun of late-arriving audience members and winning over the audience right from the start with his easy-going manner.

Jensen, who has long been my favorite actor at Salt Lake’s Off Broadway Theatre, is a treat as Fisby. He has the wild energy and physical agility of Jim Carrey, but he’s able to reign it in when necessary and give an even, solid performance. His scene with real-life wife Sandy as the Geisha girl, distracting him while he’s on the phone with his supervisor, is hysterical. But even that’s just one gem of many in this good-natured, laugh-out-loud funny play that gently reminds us how much beauty there is in the world — beauty that we, to paraphrase Fisby, ought to be wise enough to leave alone.

Always a swell surprise to see a show I've never heard of and find it to be delightful. For many shows that don't get performed very often, there's a good reason they don't. This one, I'd like to see more of.

The 10-year-old girl behind me in the audience didn't get a lot of the jokes, so she would ask her mom what they meant. And then Mom would explain them to her. I thought that was a nice mother-daughter interchange, and I'm glad they didn't wait until intermission or after the show to discuss it, because I'm sure the rest of the audience, like myself, wanted to be part of it.

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