Review: JUNE IS THE FIRST FALL a celebration of family and forgiveness

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The Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by the Chinese (and other Asian cultures) in late September or early October. With a full moon, this family gathering has the feeling of thanksgiving, a gathering together of loved ones. When this particular family finally completes emigrating to Hawai'i, they cannot wait until fall to get their mooncakes and rejoice. For them, June is the First Fall. From that moment on, they begin their tradition and the family's festival is always held on this much earlier date.

At the beginning of Yilong Liu's play, Don is seated on an airplane and a woman is talking to him. The scene is a dreamlike memory. Don is returning home to Honolulu's Manoa Valley after a ten year absence. He now lives in New York. With the passage of time, memories crystallize and cannot be shaken. Memories are scattered throughout this endearing study of culture, family and personal growth.

Don's sister Jane (Stefani Kuo) and her boyfriend Scott (Karsten Otto) live with her father David (Fenton Li). Scott works in his restaurant. David left China to find a better life when his children were very small. Years later they were reunited and this house in America became their home. When it was time for college, son Don heads to the mainland, far away from the burden of expectations.

While the situations explored in this play are not unique, the relaxed pace gives this material a fresh smell. Jane hangs her sheets outside rather than using the dryer as sun-dried sheets are soothing. She wants her brother to have clean linen to sleep on when he arrives. As we will learn, Don does need soothing. And healing. And closure. And a push forward.

Don is a gay man who fled his home as so many others do. New York City can be welcoming but cold. Don's long awaited return ignites memories of his dead mother. Chun Cho plays her ghost in the many memory scenes. Her performance is a perfect mix of eccentric foreigner, naturalistic mother and spiritual sounding board. The play nicely evokes the important imprints left during one's impressionable youth.

June is the First Fall features a good cast of actors. As Don, Alton Alburo's is a believably confused, irritably defensive young man who still needs to toughen up. Stefani Kuo and Karsten Otto played the couple with the easy chemistry of a playful romantic relationship. The family patriarch, as one would expect, is the person whose opinion matters most. Fenton Li thoughtfully inhabited him. His personal beliefs and cultural influences believably conflicted with the the love of family and the wisdom of age. As performances continue, this comfortable familial vibe should grow even richer.

In the relatively small New Ohio Theater, the creative team has done an excellent job. With evocative scenic design (Jean Kim) and creative lighting (Cha See), this family's healing materializes in the home, on a plane and during a hike through the valley. Michael Costagliola's sound design noticeably contributed to the various locales which were employed in telling this tale.

June is the First Fall addresses the ghosts of the past which linger in our heads. In a pivotal scene, we hear: "I know there are times that we all feel like we are trapped in a loop." Are there paths to grow and move on rather than feel held back with no escape? Well directed by Michael Leibenluft, this story is smoothly paced to unravel this family's secrets and hopes and learnings.

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