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THEATER REVIEW Kentucky
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-10-30

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Playwright: Leah Nanako Winkler

At: The Gift Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: TheaterWit.org 773-975-8150; $42. Runs through: Nov. 16

When you think about people who live in rural Kentucky, do you visualize loud, vulgar, brawny, illiterate, bigoted, meth-smoking, moonshine-swilling yokels? When you think about people who live in New York City, is the image that comes to mind one of shallow, materialistic, mercurial, neurotic, pharma-popping, thrill-addicted, fossil fume-huffing urban chauvinists?

Leah Nanako Winkler's play features some of these archetypes, to be sure, but a writer who answers to a multi-ethnic surname and an origin story spanning Lexington, Kentucky, and Kamakura, Japan, is also likely to have some surprises up her sleeve. Corporate-wizard Hiro's reluctant return to her mountain home may appear to be occasioned by the wedding of her little sister Sophie to an African-American pastor's son, but to the runaway sibling, herself, it's a rescue mission.

That's just the premise, however. Over the course of the nuptial preparations, we learn that the clan patriarch's toxic misanthropy arises from an upbringing of corporal punishment administered by a maternal bully, generating denied guilt exacerbated by his marital-martyr Japanese-immigrant wife, and that most of Hiro's childhood companions have perished in car crashes and drug overdoses, their untimely deaths only serving to strengthen the survivors' endurance. Most important, we discover that the churchgoing groom and his devoutly Christian parents practice all that they preach, making for a protective stability that goes far in explaining the security Sophie derives from their unconditional acceptance—a security that Hiro continues to pursue in the Big Apple.

This isn't Osage County, though. The bouts of grim filial-wrestling share stage space with bursts of mid-speech soliloquy, song-and-dance interludes and a pair of bridesmaids who double as Greek chorus, scene-shifting stagehands, and various auxiliary characters. Let's not forget, either, meek mother Masako's beloved cat—played by the charming Martel Manning—to whom she croons, in her native language, the plaintive ballad "Ue O Muite Arukou" ( Anglophone audiences will recognize it, trust me. )

Winkler's parable dances between generational and cultural demographics with an agility that could easily dissolve into a farcical mash-up of cartoon stereotypes and Chick-tracts, but director Chika Ike and her ensemble-trained cast never succumb to the adrenal self-consciousness that so often infects actors forced to utter repugnant pronouncements. ( Paul D'Addario's Daddy James, in particular, has a meltdown scene that will spur you to wash out your ears with soap after the show ). Matching him decibel for vitriolic decibel is Emjoy Gavino's Hiro, sporting eyeglasses the size of Imax screens and an even bigger attitude. Don't discount the nuanced performances contributed by Hannah Toriumi as the quietly resolute Sophie and Helen Joo Lee as the deceptively self-effacing Masako.

Winkler endows her oft-misrepresented characters with unprejudiced warmth and compassion almost, but not quite, eclipsing the profound intelligence reflected beneath its sometimes-giddy presentation, so pay attention, you all.


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