Friday, November 8, 2019

Review of The Gift Theatre's Kentucky

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Kentucky. It was by Leah Nanako Winkler and it was directed by Chika Ike. It was about a woman named Hiro (Emjoy Gavino) who is coming back to her hometown in Kentucky for her little sister Sophie's (Harmony Zhang when I saw it, usually Hannah Toriumi) wedding--to talk her out of it. Sophie is now a born-again Christian and is marrying the pastor's son Da'Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes). She feels guilty for leaving her sister and her mother, Masako (Helen Joo Lee), with an abusive father and husband James (Paul D'Addario), so she returns to try to get them to come to New York with her. It is about what home is, lost connections, and different types of love. I think this is an insanely well-written show with fantastic actors and great direction. It was overall an amazing show.

At first I thought that this was going to be a play about the damage that religion has done to families and the world and that I would be rooting for Hiro to rescue her sister. But instead it has a highly respectful view of religion even if the main character doesn't agree with religion as a concept. It shows how some people need religion in their lives to survive and some people don't find comfort in that and how these two types of people can cohabitate and love each other. I liked that the minister, Ernest (Michael E. Martin) and his wife, Amy (Jessica Vann), despite the usual stereotypes, were genuinely nondiscriminatory and kind Kentucky Christians. The Christians in this play, their religion is based on love and forgiveness. So even when Sophie's father lashes out and yells at his own family and his daughter's new family, they forgive him because that is what they believe is right.

I really like this playwright's dark humor, and I especially liked it in this show. When Masako found out that her beloved cat Sylvie (Martel Manning) had died, she was so devastated that she carried around the body in a Cheesecake Factory bag from the rehearsal dinner. This at first seemed funny because it was a callback to two separate things--the cat dying (which was, at first, performed as a comedic bit) and going to Cheesecake Factory (which everyone except for Hiro was much too excited about). But then it becomes a depressing scene of her cradling and singing to her dead cat because she felt like Sylvie was the only living thing that loved her. It shows really layered writing, which gives the audience multiple things to hone in on. There is also one section where Hiro and her high school friends (Emilie Modaff and Maryam Abdi) are out at a bar and start counting how many people at their school died in motorcycle accidents and from drug overdoses. But then when Hiro actually encounters Adam (Manning), whose friend died from a drug overdose, she sees him as a real person instead of this faceless victim. This play has dark humor, but it also uses a character's realizations about dark humor to further her development.

This play tackles trauma and the effects of "life-ruining" people. James, the father, had abused his wife and children for years, but his wife has stuck with him this whole time and forgiven him. There was a moment that made the strength of Masako's choice clear, when she talks about how when her husband has Alzheimers and she is changing his diaper, he will finally love her and say thank you for everything she has done. She has been waiting for him to love her for so long and has this light at the end of the tunnel she is hoping will happen. But of course that is not guaranteed; she is feeding herself lies and hurting her daughters through that. This creates a distance that she is painfully aware of. Every time she sees something that reminds her that her daughter is getting married, she says, "I'm losing her," which is absolutely heartbreaking. This role was played beautifully and I think Lee fully captured the pain and love Masako had, while still letting her have comedic moments which are needed for a character like this. (The rest of the paragraph may be a spoiler, so skip it if you are worried about that.) Hiro ends up walking her sister down the aisle in the place of their father. But before she decides to, it seems like she might refuse to do it. That shows how Hiro is scared of becoming her dad. But her choice to do it in the end shows that she has learned from the trauma of how her father has treated her how to change to be what her sister needs in that moment. In the end, their father shows up and sees what role he has truly played in his daughters' lives, but of course, since he is who he is, he never apologizes and says he thinks the whole idea of walking your daughter down the aisle is stupid. At the same time, Hiro lets herself let her sister have her own life the way she wants to do it, which really ties together that relationship in a way that is not neat but fully realizes that relationship which i think was the exact right thing to do.

People who would like this show are people who like good Kentucky Christians, the fear of becoming your parents, and Cheesecake Factory caskets. I think this is the perfect dark family dramedy. The relationships within the show are amazing, the play is performed wonderfully, and it is written and directed perfectly. I love it so much.

Photos: Claire Demos

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