Where: The Gift Theatre
at Theater Wit,
1229 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through Nov. 16
By ANNE SPISELMAN
At the beginning of Leah Nanako Winkler’s 2015 “Kentucky,” a mini Greek chorus of two Bridesmaids (Maryam Abdi, Ana Silva) in long pink gowns sings “These people have shaped you. These people are horrible. These people are lovely. You are lovely and horrible.”
Their song is for Hiro (Emjoy Gavino), and it embodies her fears and conflicting feelings about herself and the family she’s about to visit for the first time in years. It also reflects the contradictions of a play that examines the meaning of home and happiness while defying certain preconceptions. And thanks to director Chika Ike and her first-rate cast, Gift Theatre’s Chicago premiere in a larger space than its usual storefront is both funny and poignant, if improbable and somewhat bizarre.
A 30-ish woman in marketing who lives in Manhattan and measures her success by her $60,000 salary, Hiro is returning to the town she escaped and calls “Bumfuck, Kentucky” for a wedding, a familiar occasion (along with funerals) for you-can’t-go-home-again dramas. She’s on a mission, however: She wants to prevent her 22-year-old sister Sophie (Hannah Toriumi), a born-again Christian, from marrying Da’Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes), a man she’s known for only six months, who is the son of minister Ernest (Michael E. Martin) and his wife Amy (Jessica Vann). Convinced that Sophie is too young and can’t possibly be happy, Hiro does everything she can to get her to abandon her fiancé on the eve of the wedding and return with her to New York, where she even lines up a job for Sophie with her company.
Advised against this course of action by her therapist Larry (Silva), Hiro actually is the one who’s an emotional mess. In addition, she’s oblivious to the feelings of those around her. Not only can’t she accept that Sophie knows what she’s doing—to emphasize the point, Winkler cannily has both sisters give the same speech about the moment they became self-aware—she walks all over her Japanese mother Masako (Helen Joo Lee), a timid doormat of a woman who won’t leave her abusive American husband James (Paul D’Addario), an alcoholic whose scary rants disrupt everything including the wedding rehearsal. He was the main reason Hiro left Kentucky in the first place, and as they get into it—making her fears reality—it also becomes apparent that there is more of him in her than she wants to admit.
Popping anxiety pills and swilling booze, Hiro also has encounters that are common homecoming tropes. She meets up with two old school friends at a bar, and Nicole (Emilie Modaff), who later laments to the audience that she wasn’t even invited to the wedding, says she’s always had Hiro’s back despite the fact that her texts and phone calls were never returned.
Hiro impulsively (and drunkenly) embarks on an affair with old crush Adam (Martel Manning), a decent man who regrets his lost youthful heyday, is happy he stayed in Kentucky, and wants her to marry him and stay there, too. He’s so caring and supportive, we wonder why she’s reluctant. In a canny move, Manning also portrays Sylvie, the sickly, old, talking cat who is Masako’s only source of solace and who once loved Hiro but now hisses at her.
As you may guess from the talking cat, “Kentucky” is not a naturalistic play, though it does have naturalistic sections. These are interspersed with meta-theatrical bursts, direct addresses to the audience, songs, dances, and some over-the-top stuff. Knowing what to make of it all isn’t easy, but it seems to be hopeful about the ability of people to learn from each other.
Credit goes to The Gift’s actors for creating complicated, convincing characters, even if their actions are sometimes incredible. The staging is fairly simple, with three large sky-painted screens highlighting Ryan Emens’ set, lighting by Rachel Levy, sound by Aaron Stephenson, and costumes by Rachel M. Sypniewski.
Looking for insight into Winkler’s intent, I consulted the script. Here’s what she says about tone:
“This play is highly theatrical, and the tone and style can change from time to time. It’s okay to be playful but everything must always be sincere. The language is lucid, shifting from naturalistic banter to poetic bursts of a character’s deep conscience, and even songs but nothing is ironic. Every single character is earnest and honest. Let the humor come from truth. Being ironic and outside of the text will not serve the play.
Everyone is trying their best. Also, please treat the Christian characters with love. The intention is not to make fun of them.”
The deliberate effort to avoid satirizing predictable targets is one of the things that makes “Kentucky” special, and The Gift Theatre keeps faith with the playwright’s wishes.