Monday, May 2, 2016

Review: Take Me Home, Kentucky Road

Some people are naturally hometown homebodies. They’re people who live their entire lives in the place they grew up. Some people fight to escape the monotony of home to forge a new life someplace else. We all know those people. For those who “got out”, they gain a different perspective on those who are still there. They want what’s best for those who are still stuck so they’ll do what they can to rescue them. Such is the case in Leah Nanako Winkler’s exceptional Kentucky, a co-production from new work powerhouses Ensemble Studio Theatre, in association with Radio Drama Network, and Page 73. A young woman, living a free life in New York, returns home to save her sister from a marriage to a man she barely knows.
In Kentucky, Hiro, a strong-willed young woman approaching 30, returns to her Kentucky country home to be the bridesmaid to her sister Sophie. Only Hiro has a plan. Hiro wants to save her sister from a hometown life, marriage to a virtual stranger, and their emotionally abusive father. But when Hiro sets foot in the place she once knew, things don’t go exactly as planned as her past catches up to her, and she questions whether she’s truly moved on from the pain of the past. On the surface, you could say Kentucky is a play about family and your roots but deep down, this is a play about loneliness and accepting loneliness. There is an excitement and charm to Nanako Winkler's language. The accessibility draws an immediate bond with the audience. This may not be your family but they represent something familiar. Kentucky has a natural cinematic aura to it. With constant location changes, you can imagine this play on the big screen. The characters and situations within Nanako Winkler’s text fall into a very sitcom style of comedy. But there is an edginess to it. It’s a welcome tenacity that allows the themes she explores to break through. Through the humor, Nanako Winkler infuses a commentary on the roles of husband and wife and the facades people create through religious walls they can hide behind. Wherever you fall in your personal beliefs, the observation is relevant. Additionally, the use of regional views and culture is quite fun. Hiro sees these people as hillbillies yet they don’t necessarily view themselves as such. They are just happy-go-lucky people eager to get through life. Drugs and alcohol are present as a means to cope with the lack of opportunity. And that’s why Hiro wants to get Sophie out of this potentially damaging world. The weight of the themes gets lightened up through the humor, but there is one aspect of Nanako Winkler’s script that is utterly jarring, and that is the use of Sylvie the cat. When examining loneliness, Sylvie plays an integral role in Masako’s narrative. Masako, Hiro and Sophie’s mother, feels, after everyone has abandoned her, the only thing she has in life is her cat. But the use of an anthropomorphic cat felt out of character in comparison to the rest of the show, especially in Sylvie’s send off, which was just too indulgent. Does the cat have to go? Maybe. Or maybe a puppet is the right direction.
photo by Jody Christopherson
To put it bluntly, Kentucky has a giant ensemble cast. Another reason for the cinematic feel. As the heroine of the story, Satomi Blair's Hiro, surrounded by a colorful cast of comical characters, was the most realistic. This highlighted the reciting of her text and the unsympathetic manner of the character. Blair plays into the stereotypical cynicism. In any other world, Blair’s performance may stand out, but the boldness forced her into the background. The standout performance of Kentucky comes from the plucky and beautiful Sasha Diamond as optimistic sister Sophie. Diamond glimmers with hope. This is someone to keep an eye on. One of the strong themes within the play is the idea of family. The fascination of watching the dynamic between Mean dad James played by Jay Patterson and brainwashed mom Masako played by Ako. The stark differences between the two (and the unnerving relationship) added a gripping element to the story. There is a natural sense of theatricality to Kentucky that Leah Nanako Winkler imparts. The Kentucky Greek Chorus of Sophie’s bridesmaids set the perfect tone, and melody, for the play. Comprised of Merissa Czyz, Samantha Sembler, and Shannon Tyo, the trio went beyond creating one voice. They crafted characters built from manufactured happiness. They were impeccable.
It’s safe to say that Kentucky was sublimely constructed and adoringly envisioned. Director Morgan Gould infused a spark of life in her staging, keeping the play moving with driving excitement and soul in every beat. Gould guided her company to find characters that had a colorful persona and yet were grounded by reality. Tackling the ever-changing location shifts, scenic designer Nick Francone created a world that combined whimsy with practicality. It was a country-fried set with a wall of strategically placed accouterments including lit block letters spelling "Kentucky" with nostalgia and antiques that get highlighted per scene. However, The University of Miami football needs to be replaced immediately for a University of Kentucky Wildcats football. Matching the needs of the play, lighting designer Ryan Seeling explored color to create a pallet of various looks and moods. The string lights were a welcome addition to the Podunk-country-bar feel. The costumes from Suzanne Chesney were interesting. Working regional flair with bright colors and patterns into the design was brilliant. Putting Hiro in all black virtually the entire show showed a contrast of worlds but it also forced her further into the background.
Leah Nanako Winkler hammers in the idea of Wildcat pride at various points of her play. And it’s clear there is an exuberant amount of pride and joy that came out of this production. Kentucky has not only put Leah Nanako Winkler on the map but ensured her as an important player in contemporary theater.