In “Aubergine,” an appealing, lyrical family drama by Julia Cho, life boils down to two essentials — food and death. Each of the characters deals with both, in unexpected ways.
Ray, a Korean-American chef (Tim Kang), must bring his comatose father home from the hospital. The hospital personnel don’t make clear that there is nothing more they can do for him; Ray’s father (Stephen Park) is dying. But home hospice worker Lucien (Michael Potts) gently spells it out for Ray. Ray asks his former girlfriend Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim) to telephone his uncle back in Korea to tell him that his brother’s life will soon end. (Ray doesn’t speak Korean; Cornelia does.) The uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), who speaks no English, shows up unexpectedly from overseas, bringing with him what he sees as the solution — the ingredients for turtle soup (including the turtle.)
The uncle explains that when Ray’s father was about to leave Korea for the United States, his mother, who was a glorious cook, made a simple but exquisite meal. The meal had a specific purpose, and it worked, as his uncle recalls (in Korean, with English supertitles) “He said: ‘how can I go? I cannot go.’ His tears rolling into his empty bowl.” But his mother changed her mind, seeing how upset he was for abandoning his plans. She told him to go to America. “This time,” the uncle says, “we won’t let him go.”
The speech, poetic, a tad surreal, and focused on food, is typical of the monologues in “Aubergine.” Even the hospice worker Lucien is obsessed with food, though before immigrating to the U.S. he lived in an African refugee camp that had very little of it. (“In the camps, we ate elaborate meals in our minds, dreaming of dishes that our relatives—often almost all dead—once made.”) Each and every character in “Aubergine” at some point explains their favorite meal — and it is not the kind of meal that a foodie would cite: It was the meal that most reminded them of home (and, largely unspoken, of love.) This is true even of Diane (Jessica Love), a blonde American, who tells us the story of her foodie adventures, her “gastronomic gallivanting” with her rich husband, which ended when she learned that her father was dying. Diane’s long monologue begins the play, and for a long time it is unclear what (other than thematically) it has to do with the central story of Ray and his father.
The way that Diane eventually features in the main story helps invest Cho’s play with a lovely magical realism, the kind that we associate with writers like Laura Esquivel (“Like Water for Chocolate.) No, Cho’s play isn’t strictly realistic. although the acting is all low-key and convincing. (Even Stephen Park, who, other than in a single flashback, spends his time in a coma, is persuasive.) At one point, Lucien gives Ray a gift of an eggplant he has grown himself. But the French-speaking Lucien calls it an aubergine. “….aubergine is so much more beautiful. ‘Eggplant.’ That sounds like an awkward, milky white, sickly thing. But ‘aubergine,’ ahh. That starts to approach the beauty of the thing itself.” As with aubergine, so with “Aubergine.”
at Playwrights Horizons
Written by Julia Cho
Directed by Kate Whoriskey
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Jennifer Moeller
Lighting Design: Peter Kaczorowski
Sound Design: M.L. Dogg
Production Stage Manager: Cole P. Bonenberger
Cast: Tim Kang, Sue Jean Kim, Jessica Love, Stephen Park, Michael Potts, Joseph Steven Yang