Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Aubergine”: Food For Love And Loss At Rep Is Bitter –Sweet Pill.

Food has always been at the center of my family. My Dad owned a grocery store and a deli (however he never made a pastrami sandwich by toasting the bread in a fry pan with butter it would be completely against our culture) and he considered himself homegrown chef and butcher.

One of my daughters is a bona-fide Chef, another is an expert at Middle Eastern cooking (she makes several variations of rice) having lived in Israel for over sixteen years, and another is an amazing cook.

My grandmother stood over her stove all day long skimming the fat off her chicken soup (Jewish penicillin) so not an iota of fat could be detected.

My mother could cook up a storm in minutes. Yours truly- nada! But that doesn’t mean food didn’t impact my thinking. It has always been an equalizer in my family as I’m sure it is and will be for families like mine, and others to come for generations.

Dana Lee and Brian Kim
So at the end of Julia Cho’s “Aubergine” now in a thoughtful, a bit depressing, and  long (2and1/2 hours) play at the San Diego Rep. through Feb. 17th my salivary glands went into overtime when I smelled the aroma of something being cooked backstage. That’s how I roll.

Food though doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In Ray’s (Brian Kim) Korean American family, like so many other families, food acts as a conduit for everything that’s going on in his family, good/ bad or indifferent. 

In his case his Father (Dana Lee excellent as the aloof and disappointed parent) is dying of a liver disease and Ray is taking care of him at home (Justin Humphries designed the versatile set) on the advice of the hospital staff. With the guidance of his hospice nurse, Lucien (a convincing and tender Terrell Donnell Sledge) who cradles a home grown eggplant or aubergine that he gives to Ray, is right there to help. (On aubergines: “They hate to be cold, like me. They need warmth and space. Pick them too soon or too late and they will not be better. Knowing the right time that is part of the art.)

Brian Kin ans Audrey Park
Ray is also recently estranged from his girlfriend Cornelia (Audrey Park is a shining star adding much depth to her role as peacemaker). She worked with him in his restaurant but he walked out on her and the restaurant without an explanation. His relationship with his dying father isn’t much better and no matter how hard Ray tries to get him to have something to eat, he will only drink Ensure, the drink of choice sent home from the hospital.

Ray is still blistering from his father’s rejection of him as a Korean chef (women’s work) who specializes in French cuisine. In scenes between father and son, going back in time, we get a picture of the conflict and bitterness between the two that includes some levity when Ray is preparing a meal recommended by his uncle, that is supposed to be the ultimate recipe to bridge the gap between father and son, life and death. Food being the neutralizer he’s suggesting a turtle soup and we see Ray with a real honest to goodness turtle. (Not to worry, its not used.)

All this happens when Ray’s uncle (animated and reflective Young Kim) arrives from Korea, after a phone call from Cornelia who is able to communicate with him in their native language. At this point translations and lighting (Kristin Swift), are projected on a back wall filling us in on what they are saying…tweaked somewhat to satisfy Ray)

Brian Kim and Young Kim
After and having not been in touch with his brother for years, he begins by ordering soup for his brother over objections from Ray, insisting his father has not eaten a thing, but no mater, the soup complete with turtle, is on the menu for Ray to cook. 

In the meantime he fills Ray in on some lost memories especially the last time the brothers were together and how their mother made soup (she strained the soup until it glowed)…a soup of the rarest clarity, in order to convince her son to stay home. 

Associate artistic director Todd Salovey along with playwright Julia Cho's lyrical play and a highly skilled cast bring a taste of Korea into the lives of those knowing little or nothing of that culture. Heartbreak comes in watching the struggles that tears down families, watching the father /son relationship ebb and flow to ultimately reach some peace of mind and move forward in universal themes that encompasses a whole new world for them; one of food and death and dying.  

Brian Kim’s Ray is perfect as the disgruntled, ignored and disappointed son who, no matter how hard he tries, is never good enough for his distant father to embrace. When he finally decides to make soup for his father, a corner is turned in his acceptance of his sense of family and the inevitability of his father’s death.

And going back to the pastrami sandwich made with buttered bread frying on the stove…the play opens with a prologue by a self described foodie Diane (a beautifully nuanced Amanda Sitton dressed smartly in Elsa Benzoni’s designs) and her husband who majored in philosophy and their travels from San Francisco, to Yountville, to Portland, to El Bulli…well you get the picture.

Young Kim, Audrey Park, Brian Kim
They were hungry for something that was really good. Back home her dad was dying of cancer but still able to put some bread on the frying pan and make a pastrami sandwich that was “sitting there between us like a contract, a letter. Addressed only to me”. And while the chemo killed his taste buds, the memory of this scene in his kitchen never left her. 

Suffice it to say, we don’t have to look very far or wide to know that the universal panacea to bringing memories from the past are food stories, and no matter the culture, death comes to all in one form or another.  

No one has the perfect formula to cope. How we deal belongs to no one culture, but those waiting with a loved one will always try to bridge the gap by doing what is right in their gut. 

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Feb. 17th
Organization: San Diego Repertory Theatre
Phone: 619-544-1000
Production Type: Drama
Where: 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101
Ticket Prices: Start at $25.00
Web: sdrep.org
Venue: Lyceum Space
Photo: Jim Carmody


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