Soulpepper – Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience

Talk about inspired programming. Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz saw a hit show at the Toronto Fringe Festival and put it on his mainstage season along with Henrik Ibsen and Arthur Miller. The play is such a hit that it’s coming back for a repeat run, May 17 to Jun. 9.

Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience is set in a Korean-run corner store in the Regent Park neighbourhood. Mention must be made here of Ken MacKenzie’s astonishing set which is so true to life that I gasped when I came into the theatre. Not surprisingly, Kraft Canada Confectionary gets credit in the program.

The slight plot focuses on the owner’s interaction with his customers and family. The latter includes his wife, daughter and estranged son. Choi does try to walk the fine line between laugh out loud humour and sentimentality. He does write very funny dialogue, but there is treacle in the storyline, including the reconciliation with his son, and his daughter’s romance with a black policeman. Nonetheless, one can forgive the sticky sweetness because of the strongly drawn characters. Kudos to director Weyni Mengesha for deftly balancing the light with the heavy, and for putting real life on stage.

The surly, combative and opinionated Appa (father), played by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, is one of those characters born to charm audiences. Like Archie Bunker, he’s politically incorrect, but also very funny. For example, his anti-Japanese sentiments are so virulent, that he calls 911 because a Japanese car is parked in a no parking zone outside his store. I personally found Lee’s accent to be a trifle heavy. I know that’s one of the delights of the character, but I wanted to savour every word. Choi has built in repeats, as when other people don’t understand Appa, but I still missed a lot of his words. At any rate, Lee does a wonderful job in the role. His Appa is absolutely believable.

Esther Jun’s Janet, Kim’s daughter, and Jean Yoon’s Umma (mother) exist to be foils for Appa. Janet is a 30-year-old photographer and a graduate of OCAD, old enough to be reminded by Appa that her biological clocking is ticking, and Jun certainly gives a spirited performance. Umma is a more placid character, but her scene with her son, where they meet in secret, is quite affecting. Choi himself plays the son Jung. It’s an interesting character because in a high-achieving culture, he considers himself a failure. He works for a car rental agency while his boyhood friends have gone on to professional careers. Choi, an actor as well as a playwright, gives Jung a suitably resigned and defeated air.

Clé Bennett has great fun performing the four black characters – two customers, a rich businessman, and the policeman. One of the single most funny moments in the show is the halting conversation between Bennett, with a heavy West Indian accent, and Appa, where communication is practically at a standstill.

You don’t have to be Korean to enjoy the show. Anyone who comes from an immigrant background can relate. The Kim family and its generational conflict could be Italian or Jewish. The strength of the play is its realistic recreation of a slice of Toronto life. This is a play about us.

Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, starring Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Esther Jun, Jean Yoon, Clé Bennett and Ins Choi, directed by Weyni Mengesha, Young Centre, Jan. 12 to Feb. 10, 2012, returning May 17 to Jun. 9, 2012

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