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Comfort food takes on a new meaning in Julia Cho’s new drama about a Korean-American chef taking charge of his dying father’s home hospice care. Infused with the notion that a perfect meal can have magical, life-giving properties, Aubergine delivers a moving meditation on love, loss, and the emotional power of food.
Given its world premiere earlier this year at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the drama by Cho (The Language Archive, The Architecture of Loss) centers on Ray (Tim Kang), a talented chef who has temporarily abandoned his career to attend to his elderly father (Stephen Park). The old man, dying from cirrhosis of the liver, lies mostly unconscious in a bed in Ray’s living room, periodically cared for by a visiting nurse, Lucien (a superb Michael Potts), who sensitively guides Ray through the painful process of watching his father die.
“We hold the hands of the dying,” he tells Ray, who’s reluctant to leave his father’s side lest he pass away alone. “But we are not the ones holding their hands. They are the ones holding ours.”
That touching exchange typifies this drama, which sensitively explores its emotionally fraught situations while infusing them with cathartic humor. The latter is illustrated by the arrival of Ray’s Korean uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), who speaks barely a word of English but brings with him a turtle that, he assures the befuddled Ray, will restore his father to health if properly cooked into a soup.
His words are translated by Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim), Ray’s estranged girlfriend, who returns to lend moral support. Much of the Korean dialogue between her and the uncle is translated via projected English-language supertitles.
Flashbacks fill us in about the troubled relationship between Ray and his father, who had little use for his son’s culinary aspirations and who is seen rebuking him for purchasing a knife costing nearly $2,000.
“Go to supermarket, one knife is ten dollars,” he says angrily. “You buy two hundred knives, one gets dull, throw it out!” At another point, Ray, speaking to his unconscious father, reminds him about the time he prepared a multi-course gourmet meal for him, about which all he could say was “interesting.”
The structurally ragged drama includes several lengthy monologues that slow down the narrative momentum, including one delivered in the beginning by a character (Jessica Love) not seen again until the final moments. The playwright seems unsure how to conclude it, with the multiple endings proving anticlimactic. And the suggestion about Ray’s apparently supernatural ability to serve eaters their beloved childhood foods about which he had no way of knowing feels too precious.
But for all its flaws, Aubergine — the title being the fancy term for eggplant — has a deeply felt emotionality, beautifully rendered in Kate Whoriskey’s sensitive direction and the ensemble’s excellent performances. Anyone who’s ever shared a quiet late-night meal with a loved one, especially one who’s no longer here, will find much to relate to.
Venue: Playwrights Horizons
Cast: Tim Kang, Sue Jean Kim, Jessica Love, Stephen Park, Michael Potts, Joseph Steven Yang
Playwright: Julia Cho
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound designer: M.L. Dogg
Presented by Playwrights Horizons
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