It’s said that the only two things to count on are death and taxes. Most of us have at least some experience with the latter, but many have little to no experience with the former, making death somewhat mysterious and maybe scary.
On the other hand, we have few to no cultural practices associated with taxes, but many associated with death. And, the medical community has affected those practices, especially with the advent of hospice care.
Julia Cho’s Aubergine, at San Diego Repertory Theatre through February 17, explores cultural practices associated with dying, especially when multiple cultures are involved. The exploration sits astride the cultures well and makes for a mostly satisfying couple of hours in the Lyceum Space.
Ray (Brian Kim) is caring for his father (Dana Lee), who is dying of liver disease. The hospital staff has told him that they can do no more for him but send him home with Ray. The hospital sets up a bed in the kitchen/dining area of Ray’s apartment, as that’s where there is enough space for all of the things he’ll need to provide care. Feeling lost, and uncertain of his father’s wishes, Ray goes into a funk.
He’s rescued by the arrival of Lucien (Terrell Donnell Sledge), the hospice care nurse. Lucien manages to shake Ray back into action in the process of explaining the dying process and what to expect.
Eventually, Ray gets in touch with Cornelia (Audrey Park), a woman he dated. At Lucien’s suggestion, Ray’s decided to contact his father’s only relative, an estranged uncle (Yong Kim) who lives in Korea. Cornelia speaks better Korean than Ray, so he prevails her to speak to the uncle on the phone. To Ray’s surprise the uncle travels to his brother’s bedside and begins to tell family stories about the magical properties of food prepared just so.
Ray, it turns out, has trained as a chef and is actually pretty good at what he does. But, he’s not convinced that any sort of food magic will have much impact on his father.
And, in a way, Ray’s right. But food turns out to exert its magic on those who live on, in ways that both surprise and delight.
Ms. Cho structures her play around monologues, and each character gets at least one. The monologues tell of food’s effects on the speaker and on those the speaker loves. Most of them are from the Korean or Korean American experience, but a woman named Diane (Amanda Sitton) provides an anchor to Anglo cultural experience that provides subtle but effective contrast. These monologues are much more poetic than the scenes that advance the plot. Lucien’s monologue provides another contrast point, as his native culture is quite different from the others.
Eventually, the cultural practices around dying take over from those around food, and the play loses its way, briefly. But, a return to food brings with it a satisfying, even poetic, conclusion.
Director Todd Salovey’s production is simple enough to allow the poetic to contrast with the mundane. Justin Humphres constructs his scenic design primarily from projections, well supported by Kristin Swift’s lighting design and Melanie Chen Cole’s sound design. While these elements emphasize the poetic, Elisa Benzoni’s costume design effectively emphasizes the mundane. A trio of consultants, Dr. Elise Kim Prosser, Walter Byongsok Chon, and Gursimrat Kaur, helped insure that cultural practices were portrayed appropriately.
All of the performances served to advance both the story and its cultural revelations, but Mr. Kim nicely surprised with his emotional availability and cultural wisdom. Mr. Sledge’s performance tread lightly but effectively as he provided the experience with dying that no one else had.
By the way, Americans call aubergine “eggplant,” a mundane name for a poetic vegetable. You’ll have to see the play to find out why.