Mirroring life: Dark comedy hits on family dynamics

  • Marilyn (Kerry Matsumoto), left, comes to an understanding with her granddaughter Christy (Heidi Livingston) in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Marilyn (Kerry Matsumoto), left and her daughter Barb (Catherine Williams) share a moment in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Christy (Heidi Livingston), left and her mother Ellen (Julie Windell-Prado) go through family papers in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Matriarch Marilyn (Kerry Matsumoto), center talks about her unforgettable experience with daughters Barb (Catherine Williams) , left, and Ellen (Julie Windell-Prado) in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Christy (Heidi Livingston), right, tries to explain something to her Aunt Barb (Catherine Williams) in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Ellen (Julie Windell-Prado) pours another drink for herself in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Barb (Catherine Williams) places flowers from the garden in a vase in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Ellen (Julie Windell-Prado), left and Christy (Heidi Livingston) have a mother daughter talk in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Ellen (Julie Windell-Prado), center, reads the eulogy she wrote to Marilyn (Kerry Matsumoto), left, Christy (Heidi Livingston) and Barb (Catherine Williams) in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Christy (Heidi Livingston) left, Marilyn (Kerry Matsumoto) and Barb (Catherine Williams) play a game of Scrabble in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Ellen (Julie Windell-Prado), left, Christy (Heidi Livingston), Marilyn (Kerry Matsumoto) and Barb (Catherine Williams) read the fine print on an insurance policy in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Barb (Catherine Williams), left, shares a moment with her mother Marilyn (Kerry Matsumoto) in the Aloha Performing Arts production of Pruning the Family Tree at the Aloha Theatre. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAINALIU — Family is at the center of Aloha Theatre’s newest production, “Pruning the Family Tree.”

The comedy, written by Dan Gordon, centers around the relationship between a grandmother, her two daughters and her granddaughter when they all come together after the death of the family’s patriarch. While planning the funeral, the four women have to mend their relationships with each other and overcome the problems the family has faced through the years.

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For the four lead actresses, the play’s take on relationships is something that they can all relate to.

“Barb is the youngest daughter, and I’m also the youngest in my family of eight kids,” Catherine Williams, who plays Barb, said. “I think the family dynamics itself I’m very familiar with. The relationship I have with my mother in the play, it’s very much like the one I have in real life. We also use humor, but it’s a gentle and kind humor. That’s how we relate to each other (in the play) and I did that with my own mother.”

Williams is one-fourth of the ensemble cast, which is also comprised of another Aloha Theatre veteran, Kerry Matsumoto, as well as Julie Windell-Prado and rookie Heidi Livingston.

Windell-Prado, whose character is the play’s other daughter, Ellen, used the relationship she has with her sister as inspiration for her character.

“We’re in the process of moving off island to go live with my mother who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, so there is lots of issues around my sister and my mom and I all kind of working something out,” Windell-Prado said. “So this play has actually been kind of fortuitous. The character that I play handles life very similar to how my sister handles life, so I’ve really been drawing on that a lot, keeping people at arm’s length. My character very much protects herself with her humor and doesn’t really want to go deep. So I’ve actually been thinking a lot about family as I went through this.”

Livingston, who plays granddaughter Christy, said she also drew inspiration from her relationship with her sister and also from her relationships with extended family members. She said the characters in the play are trying to become better at communicating and understanding each other to repair dysfunctional relationships, and the humor the play finds in those situations is what makes it easy to relate to.

“The humor mixed with the drama, it makes this play feel more like real life than other plays where it’s all light and all comedy and that’s not really how life always works,” Livingston said. “And on the flipside, there’s dramatic plays where it’s all tragic, and that’s not really how life is either. It’s kind of like a blend of the two, where it’s kind of a mirror of how life really is. You laugh when you want to cry, and you cry when you want to laugh, and that’s just how relationships and families work.”

Drama in dark comedy’s plot

The cast described Pruning the Family Tree as a dark comedy, but more realistic than a straight comedy or drama. Matsumoto, who plays matriarch Marilyn, said the nature of the play makes it easy to relate to the plot and characters.

“This is very funny, but it is also very poignant,” Matsumoto said. “And there’s a lot of meat in there. It is a comedy and a drama, and it’s both.”

“A lot of people do have these huge elephants in the room, and problems in families and you either laugh at it or ignore it,” Williams said. “There’s a line in the play, ‘Let’s just ignore it until it goes away.’ And I think that is kind of the theme through a lot of dysfunctional families, where you just ignore and ignore problems and use humor and sarcasm and these kinds of things to deal with it. … and the play really does showcase the strength of women and relationships and how we survive.”

The relationship between the small cast and the ups and downs they’ve had while rehearsing the play also helps make the characters come to life.

“It’s been rocky, and it’s been smooth, and it’s fun and not fun,” Williams said. “It’s had all the ups and downs that family has, so we’ve kind of become a family.”

Women at center stage

With four women sharing the spotlight, director Engela Edwards said the play is unique because the female characters are not reduced to being secondary characters or having non-speaking roles.

“The women get all the best roles in this,” Edwards said.

“I love that this is a real, true ensemble cast,” Matsumoto said. “There’s no part that is better than any other part. They’re all equal and all important, and no part could be eliminated.”

Edwards said she has directed this play before outside of Hawaii, and she hopes her newest vision of the play, along with the new actors, surprises and inspires the audience.

“When I got (to Kona) three years ago, I just started pushing this play. I wanted something that the women all have great roles in,” Edwards said. “It’s a tight show that’s funny, and the audience doesn’t know what to expect because there’s a lot of surprises in it. Sometimes when you see ‘Oklahoma,’ you want to see the ‘Oklahoma’ you saw in the movies, but I can do whatever I want with this play, because they don’t know what to expect.”

The play is for mature audiences, due to language. While the play is relatively unknown compared to past productions Aloha Theatre has done, the cast hopes it doesn’t deter people from attending the play’s Hawaii debut.

And something the performers hope the audience walks away with is “a deep appreciation for the women in their lives,” Williams said. The play’s run at the Aloha Theatre coincides with Mother’s Day, May 13.

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“I would hope people would come and leave feeling like, ‘I need to tell my mom this, I’ve never told her that,’” Livingston said. “Wanting to bridge the gaps that may be in their family relationships, and maybe reach out to an aunt or grandmother they haven’t talked to in a while.”

The play premieres at 7:30 p.m. Friday and runs through May 20. Friday and Saturday shows begin at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday shows begin at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $22 for adults, $20 for seniors and young adults and $10 for children.