Theater Review: Three Year Swim Club at East West Players

Last Wednesday evening I had the privilege of attending a production of Lee Tonouchi’s Three Year Swim Club at the David Henry Hwang Theater in Little Tokyo. The good news is that I found it thoroughly enjoyable; the bad news is that if you haven’t seen it yet, you only have until Sunday to make it happen. Get your tickets here or read about my impressions after the break.

Like its characters, Three Year Swim Club sets up some ambitious goals for itself, and in my estimation it does a fair job in delivering on those goals. Based on actual people and events, Three Year Swim Club tells the story of a swim coach (who says he’s not much of a swimmer) on rural Maui who begins training underdog swimmers in 1937 in the hopes of competing in the 1940 Olympics. While the basic plot may be a little tired – an unlikely coach pushing a rough-and-tumble crew of underdogs to achieve more than they think they can – it still seems to offer a decent measure of inspiration, especially when based in real situations.

Three Year Swim Club was a little jarring at first due to the use of Pidgin English, and I couldn’t help but get pulled out of the moment on occasion, trying to determine whether or not the accents seemed authentic enough. I think that part of why this happened for me is that some of the different characters sounded slightly different from one another, but then, the characters represented various social roles from that time and place.

One of the play’s successes, in fact, was its ability to put me into that time and place. Maybe the Pidgin English that was jarring at first helped to set the mood, but Three Year Swim Club brought together some of the Hawaiian social dynamics. Haole, Hapa-Haole, Japanese, Hawaiian, mixed race marriages, the working class, agricultural families, social expectations for women – the play touched on each of these factors, all within the atmosphere of the rising tensions of the imminent World War.

An especially enchanting element of the play is its impressively choreographed dances the actors engage in at various points throughout the play to represent their swimming. The rhythm was set by an unimposing drumming from side-stage as the characters chanted their swim moves – “Reach! – Pull! …” – during their practices and competitions. These moments certainly made the play quite distinctive.

There are five performances left, Wednesday evening through Sunday afternoon.