REVIEW: "Aubergine" — South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

"Celebrating Meat for the Seoul..."

A man in his 60s (Sah Shimono) is dying of cirrhosis of the liver. His son, Ray (Jinn S. Kim), has set up his father’s hospital bed in the dining room, one of the play’s somewhat blunt ironies, as the father now refuses to eat.

Another of these ironies: Ray is a chef, a métier his father has never endorsed. “The man hates my cooking,” Ray explains. “He hates it. The fact is, it’s women’s work, it’s low class, and it’s uneducated.”

“Aubergine,” a play by Julia Cho (winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and multiple other honors), poses a unique challenge. The language is lovely, the dramatic structure is impressive and the polished South Coast Repertory production directed by Lisa Peterson is impeccable. But the play itself is a somber meditation on death and, to some, as relentlessly depressing as a three-day wake.

“When someone dies,” the writer poignantly points out, “one of the harder aspects is that you no longer get to eat with them.” That sense of melancholy is beautifully evoked in a sequence of scenes in which parents and children bond — and clash — over meals, a dramatic confirmation that food is, indeed, the fundamental symbol of familial love.

The play opens with a short searing monologue from a woman named Diane (Joy DeMichelle, bringing us close to tears) remembering a late-night snack that her father prepared just for her. She’s still drawn to that simple dish; but what she really longs for is to return to 1982, when “I am eight years old and my father is young, and he, just like me, is never going to die.” …Ahh, if we could only just press that rewind button.

But the meat of the play, so to speak, concerns another food lover altogether. We next meet Ray, a Korean-American chef, who’s receiving advice from a hospital discharge worker (Luzma Ortiz). There’s little more treatment the hospital can provide, and he’s told that his father would probably be more comfortable receiving care at home.

Ray’s father’s primary caregiver is Lucien (the excellent Irungu Mutu), a soft-spoken, deeply sympathetic man who gently guides Ray through the process of accepting his father’s impending death, which Lucien knows from experience will no doubt come in a matter of days or weeks.

Like most of the play’s characters, he has an intimate relationship with food, and he presents Ray with the vegetable of the title (an eggplant) and inducts him into the mysteries of dying with aphorisms like, “Knowing where a loved one will die, and knowing how, is a gift.”