Sharing Family Ties, for Better or for Worse
The action takes place in You-Shin Chen’s (Connecticut Critics Circle Award) amazing hyper-realistic set, a detailed recreation of a corner shop that is so real you’ll be tempted to saunter onto the stage and grab a diet Pepsi and a pack of Pringles. It looks exactly as if she had sliced a real convenience store in half and transported it to the stage at Laguna Playhouse. This past Sunday evening began a two-week adventure there, premiering the first show of the 2022-2023 season at the Playhouse, with the “Gut-bustingly Funny!” (Vancouver Sun) “Kim’s Convenience.” Written by Korean Canadian actor Ins Choi (it received a Dora Mavor Moore Award nomination in 2011) and directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera, the one-acter is set to run through October 9th.
Aggressively designed by Choi (“The Beats & the Breaks”) to be likable — in this case, likable means sentimental, familiar and generically feel-good. Mr. Kim (Yong Kim; San Diego Rep: “Aubergine”), purely happenstance that he has the same last name as the protagonist, is called Appa — “father” in Korean — a gruff, undemonstrative paterfamilias whose struggles as an immigrant and a provider are nevertheless valorized.
In this, he may remind you of dozens of characters, from Tevye to Archie Bunker, whose assumptions and worldview are challenged by changing times and freethinking daughters. He and his wife, Umma (Janet Song; “Hannah and the Dread Gazebo”) immigrated to Toronto in the 1980s. Mr. Kim had been a teacher in Korea but his lack of fluent English barred him from teaching, so…running a store became his profession.
Kim is proud of his heritage and has inculcated in his children a knowledge of the dates of important events in Korean sports and history — and trivia, like, the creation of the nectarine by Kim Hyung-soon. He also has an instinctive hatred of anything Japanese, stemming from Japan’s takeover of the country in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese War and its subsequent rule over Korea as a colony to the end of World War II. When Kim sees a Japanese make car parked illegally in front of his store, he makes his daughter Janet (Susane Lee; Sundance: “susaneLand”) dial 911.
Yet, underneath his bravado he nurses a not-so-secret anxiety. This trepidation comes to the forefront when budding neighborhood tycoon Mr. Lee (one of four roles played by Clinton Lowe; “The Mountaintop,” as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) tells Kim that once the condos are finished around Regent’s Park, a Wal-Mart will be moving in that will be certain to take away his business. Lee offers Kim a very generous sum for the store, enough in fact for Kim and his wife to cash out and retire. The problem is that Kim has put everything he is into the store and it is the only visible symbol of what he has accomplished in life. His constant, suffocating reminders of filial duty have even caused his son Jung (Gavin Kawin Lee; “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” alongside Al Pacino) to run away. His daughter, however, is a thoroughly assimilated second-generation type. Janet’s rebellion takes the form of (gasp!) not yet being married at 30, a crime that sends her otherwise loving Umma into paroxysms of hennishness. She and her Appa can’t seem to talk to each other without it degenerating into a shouting match. To Appa, the larger betrayal is Janet’s choice to “waste” her time as a photographer instead of taking over the business. But it’s not all melodrama. In a flashback, we learn that, in naming the business, he and Umma considered options such as “7-Twelve” and “Kim Hortons.” Appa’s thick accent is the butt of many jokes, but so too is his blatant racism: he has developed an elaborate taxonomy of likely shoplifters based mostly on color, if secondarily on gender and size.
As the story progresses, deep-rooted feelings bubble to the surface. Light, almost childish bickering gives way to more serious arguments that hit at egos and past history. As Janet confronts Appa in rapid-fire exchange about the years of free and dreary labor she provided in the store, only to be punished emotionally as the fruit of that labor — her freedom — neared. Her initial brassy entitlement soon started to sound like legitimate grievance, even as Appa’s sacrifices began to seem like something quite real, not just a comic premise. The actors were crying. The play’s questions of gratitude and ingratitude and its exploration of the equivocal meanings of starting over no longer felt rote at all.
The cast, a blend of old and new performers working with remount director Jon Lawrence Rivera, succinctly captures this family’s wonderful blend of comedy and heart through a short hour and 15 minutes. Yong Kim gives a hugely enjoyable performance as Mr. Kim, allowing us to see the worry beneath the bluster. The combination of playwright Ins Choi’s turn of phrase and Yong Kim’s fractured accent and pronunciation make Mr. Kim endearing, exasperating and noble. And Ms. Lee provides an excellent foil, her modern attitude and ordinary English accent pointing out the central conflict between immigrants and their Canadian-born children and their completely different points of reference.
As Mrs. Kim, Ms. Song makes a lovable Umma (“mother”), a sweet and saintly woman, and in her key conversation with Jung we see how she yearns for reconciliation of father and son but is afraid to suggest it outright for fear of alienating Jung. Although Umma is often irritated with her husband, she does her best to mediate the family’s prickly inter-generational fights, and convinces us of her quiet strength and long-suffering fortitude. She is totally supportive of both her children — her daughter who stayed and her wayward son who she sees on the sly.
And as prodigal son Jung, Mr. Lee is that wonderful combination of a man who is lost but is believable as the troubled son looking for a way to reverse his impulsive, youthful actions, and brave enough to know where he has to go to find his place again. When he was 16, Jung had an epic fight with his father and fled the family with the contents of the store’s safe. He hasn’t seen his father since. He’s been in (unspecified) trouble with the law, has a dead-end job at a Discount Car Rental agency, and is the father of a two-month-old baby boy. But he frequently has a rendezvous with his mother at her church. He confesses to her that he really doesn’t like his life. He thinks of throwing it away and starting over, or maybe just throwing it away. Interestingly, his solitude in this new low ebb of his life is the place he thought he could never return…his Appa’s convenience store.
As Alex, Mr. Lowe (who is a very gifted personality actor, or an actor who can literally inhabit a role instantly and completely), is the respondent Toronto cop Janet 911 calls, and the character he plays the most. Unknowingly, the two discover that he is Jung’s boyhood friend, and the guy that Janet has had a crush on for almost two decades. You can see right away where this is going. After some squeamish, awkward moments, Alex manages to score a date.
Proud, determined, and sure that he’s always right, Mr. Kim’s Appa is broadly humorous and emotionally true. Watch him in the show’s final scene, where his pride takes a very different form and we see a warmth that’s been buried in this former teacher from Korea who has had to reinvent himself in Canada.
LAGUNA PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS, “KIM’S CONVENIENCE,” BY INS CHOI; Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera; Original Scenic Design by You-Shin Chen; Lighting by Wesley Charles Siu Muen Chew; Costumes by JoJo Siu; Sound by Ian Scot; Casting by Kim Montelibano Heil; Projections by Lily Bartenstein; Hair & Makeup by Joyce Cantrell & Wendell C. Carmichael; Fight Choreography by Andy Lowe; Cultural Consultant Yong Kim; Dramaturg Arnab Banerji; Production Stage Manager Vernon Willet.
WITH: Yong Kim, Gavin Kawin Lee, Susane Lee, Clinton Lowe, Janet Song. Understudies – Joe Alanes, Peter LaBoy, Pamela Lee Paek, Chris Yim.
Performances are September 25th through October 9th; Wednesdays through Fridays at 7:30PM, Saturdays at 2PM & 7:30PM, Sundays at 1PM and 5:30PM. An added performance on Thursday, September 29th at 2PM and Tuesday, October 4th at 7:30PM. No performance on October 9th at 5:30PM. Tickets range from $50-75, and can be purchased at www.lagunaplayhouse.com or by calling (949) 497-ARTS.
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report
PHOTO CREDIT: Jackie Teeple