Different Words For The Same Thing: Theater Review

Craig Schwartz
Sensitively executed sentimental family drama, suggestive of a new generational take on Our Town.

A sensitively executed sentimental family drama -- one which deals deftly with issues of diversity -- is suggestive of a new take on Our Town.

Part of the frenzy of reaction to the demographic and social changes in the United States has been the panicky realization that the impending threat of diversity has been irreversibly underway for such a considerable time that a more heterogenuous culture has already progressed in many ways toward acceptance as a norm. The arts have properly been in the vanguard of advocating for this new reality, and heedlessness of those traditional discriminations that no longer matter has penetrated deeply into even the nether portions of the American heartland, most particularly among the young. Certainly if one can buy kimchee (and sesame oil) at the supermarket in a rural Idaho town, our new nation has certainly waxed emergent.

Race nevertheless remains the intractable American question among those for whom it remains relevant, or even real, and nothing dies slower than ingrained attitudes. Kimber Lee’s world premiere play different words for the same thing (all lowercase) explores these issues with such subtlety that they are rarely explicitly raised.

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Alice (Jackie Chung), a Korean adoptee of parents Henry (Sam Anderson) and Marta (Alyson Reed), has long since fled Nampa, Idaho, for Chicago since the early death of her sister Maddy (Devin Kelley), who had married a Mexican chef from the north side of the tracks, Angel (Hector Atreyu Ruiz). Angel has raised their daughter Sylvie (Savannah Lathem) from infancy to adolescence, where she now tenuously flirts with his restaurant employee Frankie (Erick Lopez). Alice returns to help her ill mother, but there are bruised feelings and festering resentments that have endured throughout her absence that she first avoids, then attempts to reconcile.

Clearly, in broad outline, this panoramic view of multiple characters comprises a small town society considerably less uniform than that of the New Hampshire hamlet of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, in ways that go considerably beyond the nostalgia-tinged eccentricities of that 1938 play. Yet it’s now easy to forget how innovative and experimental Wilder had been with his narrative form: the now routine direct address and fragmentary development of accumulating glimpses of character. Lee, too, follows in that tradition by scrambling the disclosure of suffficient information to realize who is who and how they relate to one another until a considerable way into the action. By the time we are allowed to get it, we already know a great deal to apply to that understanding.

This manipulation is performed with great skill and allows the writer to avoid almost entirely any didactic, or even particularly expository, dialogue, building her portraits out of the lapidary sculpting of ordinary speech and interaction. Alice’s first stop is the local donut shop, a location appearing quite frequently in any recent theater portraying today’s small-town life, tended by a childhood chum long nursing an unexpressed crush, Mike (Malcolm Madera). Lee deftly avoids crafting scenes in which a point is pointedly conveyed.

Nevertheless, once the many strands of relationships clarify themselves, Alice finds far too facile a means of reconciling long-simmering resentments and emotional distances. Lee’s extended epiphany sustains her restrained tone, but it is also at base frankly sentimental, more invoked than earned, and not nearly so complex as her orchestration toward that muted climax had been.

Under the steady direction of Neel Keller (last season’s fine The Nether, also at the Kirk Douglas), all the actors are models of contained delicacy, projecting a natural charm or stubborn recalcitrance (or both). The overweening undercurrent is one of frustrated good will. Notably for a CTG production, there are stray passages of Spanish dialogue that remains tastefully untranslated, although the feelings expressed are plainly manifest, and in today’s Los Angeles, what diehards remain who cannot glean the gist of at least rudimentary Spanish? 

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (runs through June 1)

Cast: Jackie Chung, Hector Atreyu Ruiz, Savannah Lathem, Erick Lopez, Sam Anderson, Alyson Reed, Malcolm Madera, Monica Horan, Jose’ Zuniga, Stephen Ellis, Devin Kelley, Rebecca Larsen

Director: Neel Keller

Playwright: Kimber Lee       

Set designer: Sarah Krainin

Lighting designer: Geoff Korf

Music & sound designer: Paul James Prendergast

Costume Designer: Candice Cain

Produced by The Center Theatre Group

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