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Theater review by Alex Huntsberger
In Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, Hiro (Emjoy Gavino), a New Yorker in her late 20s, returns to her family’s southern homestead to stop her little sister’s wedding. She reckons that Sophie (Hannah Toriumi), who is 22, is too young to be getting married, especially to a guy she met six months ago, and she’s convinced that the girl has been brainwashed into her fiancé’s born-again-Christian faith. Despite her wariness at reuniting with her volcano-tempered and abusive father (Paul D’Addario), she’s dead set on her mission—and she’s got her therapist, Larry (Ana Silva), on speed dial just in case. But when Hiro’s journey sparks disaster after disaster, she has to face a difficult truth: Despite her name, she might just be the villain of the story.
Like Hiro, Kentucky shows little interest in behaving: The play takes a scenario that seems ripe for straightforward realistic drama and stuffs it with flights of theatrical fancy. There are inner-monologue asides and a full-on Christian-pop dance number. Hiro’s mother (Helen Joo Lee) has an aged cat that is played by a grown man (Martel Manning) in a catsuit; one character, Hiro’s childhood friend Nicole (Emilie Modaff), seems to exist solely to comment on how she’s been left out of the proceedings.
Director Chika Ike delivers the play’s Chicago premiere in a raucous and woolly production for the Gift Theatre (performing at Theater Wit). While it occasionally adds unnecessary chaos, her approach mostly serves the script well. Ryan Emens’s set—an open stretch of wooden deck, piled with bric-a-brac and flanked on three sides by painted panels of blue-and-white sky—calls to mind a backwoods bar and a battlefield. As Hiro’s fight against her sister’s wishes and her father’s nihilism slowly turns into a war against herself, the stage itself seems to grow larger and larger, and Gavino ever more alone. Hiro is more like her father than she’d care to admit, and too unlike her sister to listen when Sophie tells her she’s happy.
Kentucky is play about Asian-American characters that isn’t explicitly about their Asian-American identity, a fact that feels quietly radical in how offhandedly it’s presented. Gavino, D’Addario and Toriumi are wonderful in the central roles—their performances seem perfectly calibrated with one another’s—and Lee is likewise terrific as Hiro’s tragically kind-natured mom. Though less outrageous funny than Winkler’s Two Mile Hollow, this is an exciting piece of work: as unruly as it is bighearted, containing many contradictions and bent on resolving none.
The Gift Theatre at Theater Wit. By Leah Nanako Winkler. Directed by Chika Ike. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 15mins. One intermission.