Food is, naturally, a central part of daily human existence. But it’s especially vital for Ray (Tim Kang), the troubled chef at the center of Julia Cho’s moving, clever and often funny new drama, Aubergine.
But for Ray, and indeed, for all of us, food rarely, if ever, means physical nourishment alone. In Cho’s play, it is a broad prism through which to view the most essential ingredients of the human experience, including love, family and, chiefly, identity. While the device can, at times, seem a bit contrived, strong performances and sensitive direction keep the play down to earth.
We meet Ray in the hospital where his father (Stephen Park) is unconscious and dying of liver failure. Even though no words are exchanged between them, it’s clear their relationship is complex and not altogether pleasant. Ray is in over his head in the hospital, and processing his feelings through the evergreen comforts of pizza and beer. Food is a tool for healing in more ways than one throughout Aubergine. So, too, is good company, often from the least likely of individuals.
Lucien, a home hopsice nurse played with warmth and hard-nosed candor by Michael Potts, is case in point. A relative stranger, he quickly becomes not just a caretaker to Ray’s father but to Ray himself. “Go get some air. Get out of this house. Get something to eat,” he tells Ray.
Taking his advice, Ray’s first journey out takes him to see Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim), a love interest with whom it’s clearly complicated. Before she has time to walk out on him, Ray enlists her to break the news about his father to his virtually estranged uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) in Korea. Ray, a fellow second-generation American, has limited Korean language ability, a fact that proves the source of ongoing hilarity when the uncle, an animated character with equally limited English language ability, arrives at his doorstep. Under Kate Whoriskey’s direction, these scenes manage to tastefully highlight the humor that mark cultural misunderstandings without unduly exaggerating them.
The rest of the narrative largely concerns the preparation of a unique, and somewhat unusual, soup with for Ray’s father. The dish, like all the other foodstuffs that make an appearance in the show, has significant symbolic value. But as Ray’s uncle describes it in the final moments of the first act, the stakes surrounding it become unnecessarily, almost hyperbolically high. “Make it so good, my brother will ask for more,” the uncle says. “This time we won’t let him go. This time we will make him stay.”
Despite its lofty introduction, the dish is ultimately a grounding force. For Ray, it becomes the catalyst for reflection on fundamental and complicated questions about his upbringing and, moreover, his heritage.
As Ray’s father declines, Ray and Cornelia, in scenes effortlessly and genuinely acted, bond over the experiences they’ve shared as the children of immigrants. Much of those ruminations, involve food, which, here, serve as a signpost for the gulfs dividing older and younger generations of Korean-Americans. In these moments, and fourth wall-breaking, lengthy monologues from each of the major characters interspersed throughout the play, Cho’s lyricism and her knack for conjuring illustrative anecdotes shine through. The cloud of death never quite leaves Aubergine, but there is levity and light in these recollections, keeping the tone from getting too somber.
Ultimately, Cho’s talent for tying narrative bows means that she occasionally leaves less room for ambiguity than Aubergine probably needs. And the inclination to consistently resolve those threads through the lens of food can sometimes verge on the pat. A framing structure built around Diane (Jessica Love), an auxiliary character who surfaces for the plays’ beginning and end, strikes as particularly facile. But all told, Aubergine is rarely over-sweet, and includes much to savor.