By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
As the stage lights come up on East West Players’ latest production, a sparsely furnished cavern is revealed. Hidden high in the Himalayas, it is a refuge from the pressures of terrestrial life, but as “Cave Quest” unfolds, the real hollow may well be in the hearts of its characters.
Written by Les Thomas and directed by Diane Rodriguez, “Cave Quest” finds an aggressively driven video game designer who has braved the frigid elements to locate the cave, for which he has been searching ardently, to make contact with its lone inhabitant. Justin Yi, played with caffeinated adrenaline by West Liang in his EWP debut, has spent untold energy and resources to find Padma (stage and screen veteran Kim Miyori), the legendary Buddhist nun who has forsaken her suburban life to meditate in solitude, to find her inner sanctum.
With iPod and energy bars his idea of survival gear, Justin has gone to such great (and life-threatening) lengths to locate Padma, with the stated purpose of analyzing her life and philosophy for the development of a new game to lead its players to “enlightenment.” He’s staked the future of his career on the success of this project and failure simply is not an option. Given the deficient level of his mountaineering savvy, it seems a small miracle he’s reached the cave at all, let alone alive.
For her part, Padma is less than impressed with Justin’s tenacious efforts. Having not seen nor spoken to another human being in years, she isn’t exactly eager to play host, initially arming herself with a broom and stool to fend off the exuberant intruder. When Justin marvels at how very alone she is in her alpine solitude, she grumbles, “I was.”
As Justin’ lays out his ludicrous plans (which include the website hardcorebuddhist.com), we realize that his real quest is not the cave nor Padma, but a pathway to his own inner peace. We grasp a sense that he is, in many ways, a failure at whatever he attempts, and that this project will redeem his worth in the eyes of his peers as well as in his own. The problems lie not in his ambitions, but in his intrusive, manipulative methods.
We also discover that the saffron-robed Padma has perhaps escaped from failures of her own. Fractured family relationships have played no small part in her seeking refuge, and as she slowly, reluctantly engages in conversation with Justin, she begins to understand the depths of his anguish, even in spite of her disgust with his tactics. Where Justin fears failure, Padma has become terrified of contact.
Any one-act, two-character play inherently faces challenges of moving its story along in smooth and logical fashion, and “Cave Quest” at times suffers from feeling a bit forced and unnatural. Miyori, a seasoned professional whom I imagine could be cast opposite a basket of fruit and still turn in a compelling performance, is counterweighted by Liang’s role, which occasionally feels hyped-up and overzealous beyond relatable emotion.
However, as Justin becomes a more welcomed visitor, and his true path to the cave is unmasked, the pains and insecurities revealed inside each character transform the play into an inescapable analysis of our own self-perceived shortcomings. Once it reaches its real destination, “Cave Quest” proves to be a satisfying ascent that is worth every effort.
“Cave Quest” runs through March 14 at EWP’s David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo. Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25. Call the box office at (213) 625-7000 or visit www.eastwestplayers.org.