REVIEW: "Aubergine" — South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa
Updated: Jun 20
"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.”
Lucien shares a memory of being a child among refugees “dreaming of dishes that our ancestors once made. This long unbroken chain of food, ending in a tent city, in a nowhere place, in a country that does not want us.” Yet beyond Lucien’s somewhat maudlin words lie one of the welcome surprises of Cho’s drama. What had seemed a play about food and appetite is ultimately a play about death and loss and the compensations that help us to bear it – love, care, perhaps a brick of instant ramen.
But as this perceptive playwright tells it, even a chef can lose his taste for food and the love it symbolizes. Ray, his face a study in vulnerability, is a dispirited chef who no longer cooks. Ray takes comfort in Lucien’s advice, because he has little else as a recourse, and his doleful life has taken a toll now on his own self esteem.
Nor has Ray been able to sustain a satisfying relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Cornelia (Jully Lee), whom he tries to make amends with for practical purposes. His father’s only brother, who lives in Korea, doesn’t know he’s dying. Cornelia’s Korean is much better than Ray’s, so after some testy resistance, she makes the awkward call, and days later the uncle (a soulful Bruce Baek) arrives, and convinces him to prepare a special meal for his father who lies ever closer to death in a hospital bed set up in the long-unused dining room.
The dish Ray agrees to make is called “mugook,” and it’s the simplest, most basic soup prepared in Korean kitchens. As Uncle tells it, his mother once prepared a dish so exquisite that his older brother couldn’t bring himself to leave home. Now, he wants his nephew to repeat that miracle, to make a soup so delicious that Ray’s dying father will drink it up and ask for more. “And this time we won’t let him go. This time we will make him stay.”
Under Ms. Peterson’s direction, these scenes are skillful and affecting, cruel and kind. There are wordless pleasures here, too, like the way Ray’s uncle kneels at his brother’s bedside or how Mr. Kim’s Ray handles a turtle, destined for the soup pot.
But Ms. Cho interleaves these insightful scenes with somewhat forced monologues in which each character describes the best meal that he or she has ever eaten – a pastrami sandwich, a pod of okra, a bucket of fried chicken. Each of these speeches is elegantly written, but these seem like rather blatant demonstrations of Ms. Cho’s skills and concerns rather than vital components of the piece. And within the scenes, she indulges her fondness for philosophical maxims, which sometimes seem quietly profound and at other times cloying.
Ms. Cho is not only a precise writer but a lyrical one. In several of her plays, like "The Piano Teacher," "Durango" and "The Language Archive," she evinces a particular interest in what can’t or won’t be said – and is never expressed. But here there’s real pathos in Ray’s attempts to gain approval from his father, no longer capable of speech, and to even try to communicate with his uncle, who does not speak English.
Apparently a small part of Cornelia still loves Ray, as she is conscripted to become his translator out of pure nostalgia. Part of that nostalgia is vocalized as she recalls falling in love with him years ago when he served her a bowl of fresh mulberries, like the ones her father picked for her as a child. “There was a time when things tasted good,” she laments, “when there was pleasure and even joy in a mouthful of food.”
As for that aubergine, it was a beauty, hand-grown by Lucien in a community garden. “The best thing I ever ate was the first thing I ever planted,” he says. “And when I ate it I tasted something that almost reminded me of home.”
Those dual themes of love and loss are inextricably and inseparably bound up in this uniquely tasteful play – implementing those humble foods as the motif — foods which evoke the sharpest memories of our long deceased loved ones, and also those memories of our own lost childhood.
With scenic and costume design by Myung Hee Cho, lighting design by Peter Maradudin, original music and sound design by John Gromada and projections by Yee Eun Nam, the artistic director is David Ivers, managing director is Paula Tomei and founding artistic directors are David Emmes and Martin Benson. Stage manager is Ben Shipley. Honorary producers are Sandy Segerstrom Daniels and Samuel and Tammy Tang.
A palatable ambrosia of cultural flavors, “Aubergine,” a play by Julia Cho, runs from October 19th through November 16th on the Julianne Argyros Stage at South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa.
Presently in its 56th season, SCR's live theatre experience includes new plays by acclaimed playwrights, innovative stagings of the Classics, outreach and educational opportunities. For tickets and reservations, please see https://www.scr.org/
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Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR