When Ray, a Korean-American, said he wanted to be a gourmet chef, his father loathed the idea. Cooking is “women’s work,” he said. It’s low class, uneducated. Ray became a chef anyway, and top-shelf at that. He studied in Paris. One day he splurged and bought a $1900 French chef knife, the Stradivarius of cutlery. His ever-irate father huffed: Ray could have picked up the same for ten bucks at a local store.
Ray quit cooking when his father came home from the hospital dying of cirrhosis.
Desperate for his father’s approval, or to make some kind of amends, Ray once prepared an 18-course “taste meal” of delicacies fit for a “foodie.” His father just said, “Interesting.” Ray later found him in the kitchen eating ramen. Since it is too big to fit anywhere else, the father’s hospital bed is in the kitchen, a blaring irony since he hates food and can no longer eat or speak.
Like most hospice workers, Lucien can tell if a person has weeks or just days to live. When Lucien says the father’s end is near, father and son must find a way to reconnect: to break the barrier between them, and defy the barrier between life and death.
And Ray might be just the one to do it. He’s an intuitive matchmaker: he can sense the perfect meal for a client. His restaurant doesn’t even have menus. He just looks at the diners, goes into the kitchen, and voila! He won his girlfriend, Cornelia, with his love of food, then lost her when he quit. Now he must not only reconnect with his father, but also his near-religious calling.
Ray recalls a South Korean woman whose son was heading overseas. To keep him from leaving, she prepared a mugook, a simple Korean soup so delicious that when he tasted it, the boy stayed home. His unnamed uncle tells Ray to prepare a mugook to bring his near comatose father back to life.
Julia Cho’s Aubergine (what the rest of the world calls eggplant) unfolds like an 18-course meal. Many dishes delight, while others lack flavor and feel forced. And the meal continues long after the entrée’s been served.
Some of the delightful dishes come in monologue/flashbacks. Most concern a favorite meal.
Amanda Sitton — making a much welcome return to the stage — opens the piece as Diane. She and her husband have “more money than we know what to do with,” so they became food junkies, then experts, then globe-trotting “food tourists,” driven to savor culinary ecstasies — including three trips to El Bulli, far off Spain’s beaten track. “We demanded the sublime on a platter,” she boasts.
Diane’s favorite meal? Her father’s pastrami sandwiches. Diane’s monologue stands at the far end of the eating spectrum, with Ray’s father at the other. She also reveals one of the play’s consistent weaknesses: the set-up is often better than the punch line: Diane and her husband quit “gastronomic gallivanting” when they had a baby.
Other monologues include Lucien’s — about being a refugee — and Ray’s off-and-on girlfriend Cornelia’s acquired distaste for food. The at-times eloquent monologues define character and let the playwright strut her poetic stuff. But they lull the pace and make the less dramatic scenes feel flat.
One of the strengths of the San Diego Rep’s show, and Todd Salovey’s direction, is respect for cultural details. One may or may not believe in Ray’s alleged intuition, but Brian Kim, who plays Ray, does. Kim adds resonances to a lost soul who has abandoned his dream.
Salovey has crafted a voiceless, improvised ritual where differences come together at the father’s simple funeral. That the vehicle is cigarette smoke detracts from one of the production’s most touching moments.
Every now and then, an actor will come on stage in what looks to be a nondescript role, and play it so well you’re glad when he’s in a scene. Yong Kim does that as Ray’s uncle. He’s from South Korea and speaks no English. That’s why Ray hooked back up with Cornelia (Audrey Park, acerbic, funny), so she can translate. The uncle suggests the meal to resurrect Ray’s father.
Justin Humphries’ spare, semi-circular set, given the occasional purple blush by Kristin Swift’s lighting, provides uncredited subtitles when Kim speaks. But they aren’t necessary. Kim’s vocal inflections, expressive eyes, and vivid gestures are crystal clear. Without pushing or trying to steal a scene, he’s a kind of modest life force, and genuinely funny.
As Ray’s father, Dana Lee spends much of the show’s two hours in bed, getting slammed with insults. His stately monologue identifies the source of his grief and restores the balance. The father’s death is the play’s climax. But it takes five or six scenes after that to tie up loose ends. Even in such capable hands, they tend to sputter.
Terrell Donnell Sledge’s Lucien, the sensitive, semi-mystical refugee/caregiver, says many things about death. Most are dusty truisms Henry James summed up: “It is not death a man should fear, but never beginning to live.”
- Aubergine, by Julia Cho.
- San Diego Repertory Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown.
- Directed by Todd Salovey, cast: Brian Kim, Dana Lee, Audrey Park, Terrell Donnell Sledge, Amanda Sitton; scenic design, Justin Humphries, costumes, Elisa Benzoni, lighting, Kristin Swift, sound, Melanie Chen Cole.
- Playing through February 16; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 7, Matinee Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.