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‘Hello, 9th Island?’ ‘Aloha Las Vegas’ next weekend at UH-Hilo

  • Photo by Daniel Nathaniel Butch (Reece Naukana-Christensen) tries to reassure DeeDee (Samantha Leatualii), who is worried about their potential move to Las Vegas.
  • Photo by Daniel Nathaniel Wally (Jon Sakurai Horita) receives a surprise visit from his old friend Harry (Desmon Haumea), who is visiting from Las Vegas.
  • Photo by Daniel Nathaniel Alvin (Glenn Fernandez) presents Wally (Jon Sakurai Horita), his potential father-in law, a gift from his fish market, as Grace (Kelly Rae Aguiar), Wally's housekeeper, looks on.
  • Photo by Daniel Nathaniel Houekeeper Grace (Kelly Rae Aguiar) is surprised to discover Wally (Jon Sakurai Horita) sleeping on his couch.

Once the 55th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival is pau, island residents looking for entertainment need look no further than the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center.

“Aloha Las Vegas,” a stageplay by Edward Sakamoto, will run there next weekend, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 12-14, with a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee April 15.

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“It runs for one weekend only, so get your tickets early,” said Justina Mattos, an assistant professor of performing arts and the play’s director.

Mattos described the play as “a Chekhovian comedy” with “some sad undertones to it.” She developed a friendship with Sakamoto, a prolific Hawaii-born playwright who worked for decades as a copy editor at the Los Angeles Times, while doing research on him and his stage works for her doctoral dissertation.

Sakamoto, who died Oct. 7, 2015, in Los Angeles, granted her unlimited rights to produce his plays, which largely focus on the Asian-American experience in Hawaii.

“I really like Ed’s work, obviously, since I focused on it in my research, and he touches a chord with local audiences,” she said. “He expresses things that are probably on the minds of a lot of people, in terms of the cost of living in paradise and the trade-off if you decide you can’t afford to live here and you try to move elsewhere. I guess he would say, ‘You can take the boy out of Hawaii but you can’t take Hawaii out of the boy.’ His characters in a lot of his plays deal with that issue.”

“Aloha Las Vegas,” which was written in 1991, centers around Wally Fukuda, played by Jon Sakurai-Horita, a widowed, recently retired land-rich but cash-poor baker who wrestles with the decision to relocate to Las Vegas — also known as the “9th Island.” The play is set entirely in Wally’s home in Liliha, a working-class neighborhood adjacent to downtown Honolulu.

“This character has lived in Hawaii his whole life. But now his friend, who moved away years ago, is trying to persuade him, now that he’s retired, to move to Las Vegas where it’s a lot cheaper,” Mattos said. “You can buy a nice house and live off what you make by selling your house in Hawaii, and have a good retirement — versus living here where you might still have to work until you die.

“The interesting thing is, the guy who plays Wally has actually done that in reverse. He moved away 40 years ago. He was a graduate of Hilo High School, class of 1969, and he spent 40 years on the mainland, having a career and raising a family. And he recently retired and he came home to Hilo.

“So he did the opposite of what our character is doing. And then, at our first read-through, he met the rest of the cast. And he and the guy who plays his best friend recognized each other because they were classmates at Hilo High School, class of 1969. So Big Island, small world.”

Desmon Haumea, Sakurai-Horita’s classmate who plays Wally’s friend, Harry, appeared in Hilo Community Players’ 2015 production of “The Trial of Lili‘uokalani,” which was directed by Mattos. As for Sakurai-Horita, it’s “his absolute first time, ever, onstage,” Mattos said.

“So everything, from you have to face the audience, is new to him.”

A couple of local stage veterans, Angie Nakamura and Glenn Fernandez, play Wally’s daughter, June, and her boyfriend, Alvin. Wally’s son, Butch, and Butch’s wife, DeeDee, are played by Reece Naukana-Christensen and Samantha Leatualii. KellyRae Aguiar portrays the unforgettable Gracie.

“Gracie, who’s Wally’s best friend and his next-door neighbor/housekeeper, is probably the most memorable character because she’s so sassy and lively,” Mattos said. “There’s a scene in Wally’s living room where they teach her the basics of rolling dice at the craps table.”

Seating is reserved. Advance tickets are $15 general, $10 senior citizens and $5 for UHH/HCC students and children, with prices at the door $5 higher. Tickets are available at the UHHPAC box office at 932-7490, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday or online at artscenter.uhh.hawaii.edu.

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“I think the thing about this play is it’s going to bring out a lot of nostalgia for people and I think that’s the thing about a lot of Ed Sakamoto’s plays,” Mattos said. “August Wilson wrote a play for each decade of the African-American experience, and Ed is like that for Hawaii. He’s really captured a place and a time. The older folks in the audience, especially, are just going to come away with a sense of nostalgia.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.