American reactions to plays about cross-cultural relations are also crucial to the success of Aubergine, a richly layered play about food, memory, and immigrant families co-produced by Olney Theatre Center and Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. (The production will move to Everyman after its run at Olney wraps.) Like Handbagged, Aubergine is being staged as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, a regional effort to get more works by women onstage. Both plays are worth the drive north, although Aubergine is much less raucous than Handbagged and not as smartly constructed.
Julia Cho’s play about first and second generation Korean immigrants enjoyed a successful 2016 run off-Broadway, and is exactly the sort of work theaters in the D.C. suburbs should stage, provided they do some savvy marketing and get parishioners at the Korean churches just down the road to congregate at a theater.
That’s not to say only Asian-Americans will appreciate Cho’s play, which hits hard on universal themes like loving your family members even when the feelings don’t seem to be reciprocal. (A tip of the hat to Korean-American City Paper contributor Mike Paarlberg for explaining that the characters in Aubergine own multiple refrigerators because at least one is storing stinky kimchi, and illuminating a few other cultural details that not all patrons will appreciate.)
Everyman’s Vincent M. Lancisi directs a solid quartet of Asian actors led by Tony Nam as Ray, a 38-year-old chef who becomes so defeated once his father enters hospice care that he starts subsisting on beer and Ensure. Although an opening monologue seems unnecessary, and few of the flashback scenes are awkward, the play is otherwise well made, asking audiences to piece together what went wrong between father and son. It takes the arrival of Ray’s uncle (a very funny Song Kim) to bridge the gap between the two men. The dramatist’s trick is that Kim’s character provides the link without speaking English. He gestures, he laughs, and at some points Eunice Bae, playing Ray’s estranged girlfriend Cornelia, steps in to translate. Ray’s father (a bedridden Glenn Kubota) only speaks in flashback scenes, but you still get to know him as well as anyone else onstage.
It’s too late for Ray and his father to reconcile, but there is plenty of time for our protagonist to move forward in life with a higher capacity for empathy. Anyone who has ever felt unable to meet high parental expectations will relate, and perhaps wonder if family skeletons are driving Mom and Dad’s desire for their children to do differently or do better.
The title Aubergine references the French word for eggplant. A few of the foodie interludes in the play feel forced, but there’s always a point, and sometimes fresh pastrami. When a Francophone immigrant hospice nurse played by Jefferson A. Russell starts reminiscing about his favorite vegetable back home, he opines, “[An eggplant] sounds like an ugly, milky white, sickly thing. But ‘aubergine,’ ahh. That starts to approach the beauty of the thing itself.”
It’s all a matter of perspective. Not every American family has four refrigerators, but nearly all have a recipe that takes an ordinary food, prepares it with love, and makes eating a revelatory communal experience.
At Olney Theatre Center to March 4. 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. $59–$64. (301) 924-3400. olneytheatre.org.