Julia Cho is a much-admired American playwright so any work of hers is highly anticipated. The combined forces of Theatre Smash and Fu-Gen have come together to present the Canadian premiere of Durango to mixed results – excellent acting, awkward production values.
There’s a saying that any ethnic can relate to any ethnic play, and this is very true of Durango. The story of the pressures of immigrant parents on the first generation children can be felt across a wide spectrum. In Durango, they happen to be Korean, but children of Jewish, Italian, Ukrainian etc. heritage can absolutely relate.
Durango is a town in Colorado that has a scenic railway up the mountain. Korean widower Boo-Seng Lee (Hiro Kanagawa) decides to take an impromptu road trip to Durango to ride the train with his two sons, Isaac (David Yee) and Jimmy (Philip Nozuka). It is a trip he has always wanted to take. All of them have secrets which are revealed on the trip from their Arizona home to Colorado.
Lee has just been downsized out of his job, and is ashamed and humiliated. Isaac has been earmarked for medical school but wants to be a musician. He has just returned from Hawaii where he was supposed to appliy for medical school. Jimmy, the golden boy, is a competitive swimmer who hates the sport that is supposed to get him a scholarship in a top university. He wants to be a cartoonist and has created his own superhero, Red Angel (Adrian Shepherd). Jimmy may also be gay. Rounding out the cast, Ardon Bess is on board as several characters, including a security guard at Lee’s work, and a fellow traveler, a retired teacher, at a motel.
For both sons, the expectations of the father are enormous. Because of them he has toiled away at his low level clerical job. It would be nice to say there is some sort of resolution at the end of the play, but Cho hits hard at the American dream. There is no Hollywood ending which makes the play all the more compelling, even courageous. Cho’s flights into magic realism with the superhero adds a layer of richness.
The acting is extraordinaryily good, particularly the love-hate relationship between Jimmy and Isaac. As for the father, Kanagawa radiates pain with every word he utters. In terms of character, director Ashlie Corcoran is spot-on. None of the three main characters expresses a false note. Corcoran clearly is a director who finds meaning and nuance in dialogue.
The one mistake concerns accents. Cho has written three monologues spoken by the dead wife and mother. The two boys adopt heavy accents when speaking her lines. The father, because he already speaks with an accent, slips into pure unaccented English, obviously to differentiate his wife’s speech from his own, but it jars. On the subject of the dead woman, Cho shows what a loss she is to the family painted by their memories.
Theatrically, the play is poorly served. Set designer Jung Hye Kim has created a slanted roof with a dormer window. There are two side pockets and a playing space in front of stage where action also takes place. The car ride is four chairs that move about the roof. The set changes are unbelievably clumsy, and it is to the credit of the actors that the play works at all. If the slanted roof is to evoke the metaphor of fragility, like Fiddler on the Roof or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it doesn’t work.
One hopes to see more Julia Cho plays in Toronto, because she is a very interesting writer in the best meaning of the word.
(Durango by Julia Cho, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, May 16 to May 31, 2015.)