EVERY LETTER COUNTS by Nina Lee Aquino, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams (Factory, 125 Bathurst). Runs to February 24, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $32-$42. 416-504-9971. See listing. Rating: NNN
Every Letter Counts is a very personal play for writer/performer Nina Lee Aquino. That's both its strength and its weakness.
Inspired by Aquino's recollections of her well-known uncle, Filipino politician Benigno Aquino, the memory play traces Bunny's (Aquino) family and national history as she tries to sort out her feelings for the relative killed by an assassin's bullet when he returned from exile in the United States.
The play begins in the Aquino Museum in the Philippines, where the adult Bunny has come to discover a family member she barely knew. She drifts back to the time when, six years old, stubborn and distrustful, she spent four days with her uncle, Ninoy (Jon de Leon) at her parents' home in Texas, just before his flight home.
As Bunny learns about her uncle, she also learns from him. Dyslexic, she shies away from anything having to do with words. Introducing her to Scrabble, Ninoy teaches her about reading and life in the play's central metaphor: one has to make the best of the tiles one draws.
The script is enriched by its use of Filipino legend and history, some of it involving Ninoy's adversary, Ferdinand Marcos (Earl Pastko). The familial relationships also ring emotionally true; the play's fourth character is Ninoy's brother and Bunny's father, Cecilio (Anthony Malarky), often at odds with his sibling and jealous of his daughter's attachment to him.
But not all the characters are fleshed out. Though we learn much about Bunny and Ninoy, the other two figures are sketchy. While Malarky has a forceful presence, Cecilio doesn't have much depth. Similarly, Pastko is convincingly seductive and ruthless as Marcos, but the character is too much of the stock villain.
Aquino's performance as Bunny is still being developed as she explores her alter ego as child and adult, the latter dealing with anger and sadness brought on by her uncle's early death. De Leon's Ninoy, though, is spot on, sometimes a charismatic leader, sometimes a man who nurtures with tough love, confiding to his niece that theirs is a family of fiery shit-disturbers.
The script has a dreamlike quality, an aspect nicely played out under Nigel Shawn Williams's direction and the design by Anna Treusch (set and costumes), Bonnie Beecher (lighting), Romeo Candido (sound) and especially Cameron Davis (projections). Davis gives us Imelda Marcos, for instance, by means of a cascade of falling shoes, and the Scrabble words that appear on the screens all echo the play's key ideas.