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Imperfect Visit: Despite Some Nice Touches, 'Kentucky' Doesn't Put Me in a Happy State -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a recent play by Leah Nanako Winkler 
directed by Chika Ike
Gift Theatre
at Theater Wit, Chicago
Thru November 18

It's hard to say precisely what left me lukewarm about Kentucky, as the two-act play contains some inspired ideas, decent writing and fine acting.

And there's enough promise in the premise for the piece to have potentially been strong throughout.

I've read that playwright Leah Nanako Winkler grew up in Lexington, KY and is half-Japanese like the like the two main characters, sisters Hiro (Emjoy Gavino) and Sophie (Hannah Toriumi).

So, without knowing quite how much of Kentucky is true to her own life, it's easy to imagine Winkler--in perhaps reflecting upon her own relocation--having love/hate feelings about the bluegrass state such as those exhibited by Hiro,

Photo credit on all: Claire Demos
But with Hiro now a marketing executive in Manhattan who repeatedly brags about making "$60,000 a year"--which I believe would barely allow her to cover rent in a Queens walkup--her visit home initially reeks of a condescending sense of superiority.

Having long stayed away due to a distressing relationship with her emotionally abusive father, James
(Paul D'Addario), Hiro ventures back to Kentucky due to Sophie’s impending wedding.

But it isn’t the chance to serve as Maid of Honor for her younger sister that brings her home, nor primarily to see her mom, Masako (Helen Joo Lee)—who Hiro loves but condemns for not leaving dad—Grandma (Emilie Modaff) and close friends.

Rather, believing that Sophie is, at age 22, making a brash and foolish mistake by opting to marry a born-again Christian named Da'Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes)—who has also prompted her to become quite religious—Hiro comes, at a rather late hour, to convince Sophie to call off the wedding.

Before she even sees her sister, Hiro gets drunk and gets something going with Adam (Martel Manning), a handsome guy she had a crush on in high school.

So essentially—and this brief summary covers just the play’s first 10 minutes—Hiro sees herself as a moral voice of reason regarding her kid sister, but is a rather adrift hot mess.

Certainly, one can’t help empathize with Hiro given how brutally D'Addario embodies her dad, but I had trouble buying into her sense of righteousness from the get go.

And while part of Winkler’s point is clearly to reflect on Hiro’s “save Sophie” journey taking unexpected turns regarding herself, without giving anything else away about the narrative let’s just say it didn’t convince me.

Gavino—who reminded me of comedienne/actress Ali Wong—does a nice job playing Hiro even if I didn’t love the character, and Toriumi finds some nice nuance in Sophie.

And the concept of having Sophie’s bridesmaids (Ana Silva, Maryam Abdi) also serve as a singing
Greek Chorus is clever, especially as the actresses handle it with the right amount of cheeky glee. Silva also humorously fills the guise of Hiro’s NYC therapist.

There is also a funny portrayal of a cat best left without me saying more.

So Kentucky isn’t unwatchable. Under the direction of Chika Ike, the Gift’s production is an estimable effort and the entire cast does a nice job. 

But though I tend to share Hiro’s preference for big cities and marketing careers and understand her aversion to Sophie’s choices, her insistence is off-putting and Kentucky just never settles into a tonality that I found engaging.

And I didn’t really care any more for where it ends than where it begins.

As I intimated at top, that criticism is rather vague, but for whatever reasons—tangible and not—Kentucky just wasn’t a wonderful place to spend a couple hours on Sunday afternoon.

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