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Theatre in Review: Kentucky (Page 73 Productions/Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Satomi Blair and Sasha Diamond. Photo: Jody Christopherson.

Hiro, the heroine of Leah Nanako Winkler's new play, is a woman with a mission. A New Yorker in her late twenties, she is determined to return home to Kentucky for the marriage of her sister, Sophie. Although ostensibly there to serve as maid of honor, Hiro intends to break off Sophie's engagement, disabuse her of her born-again Christian spirituality, and entice her back to New York for a career as an administrative assistant. She also intends to face down their abusive father, James, who caused her to flee her home many years before. Never mind that no one has asked Hiro to do these things, nor that she has barely been in contact with her relatives: Hiro is convinced that she alone knows what's best for them all. Her therapist, Larry, in some alarm, sees disaster looming, but Hiro is resolute. "I'll pay you double to be on call," she says. "Just don't drunk-dial me at 3am, okay? I hate it when you do that," he replies.

This is just the first ball in a full nine innings of wild tonal variations. Just as Winkler wants us to see Hiro as monstrously selfish and self-involved, yet wacky and adorable, Kentucky wants to combine grisly acts of parental abuse with wisecracks, the occasional upbeat musical number, and a grown man playing the family cat, complete with funny little feline ears. Actually, the cat doesn't last long enough to be an active irritant. Winkler, who has clearly read too many Beth Henley plays, is fond of exchanges like the following: Mother: "Are you drunk again? Like your father?" Daughter: "No! I threw up because you're carrying around the corpse of our dead cat in a trash bag at your daughter's wedding!"

Hiro touches down in her home state ("I don't consider it my home," she says to anyone who will listen) and is immediately informed by James, "You never could keep a man for longer than a few minutes," while her enabler mother, Masako, smiles like a crazy woman. Hiro gets together with two high school chums, who give her the rundown on all of the classmates who have died in motorcycle accidents and suicides. She quickly catches the eye of Adam, once the coolest guy in school, now a banquet manager who can't shake the feeling that his best days are behind him. "We had sex on the roof of our high school," Hiro boasts to Sophie -- not the best icebreaker when starting a conversation with your devoutly Christian sibling.

Hiro shares her plans with a distinctly unimpressed Sophie, telling her, "My therapist says people either get addicted to drugs, religion, or art. Maybe you can switch to art!" Sophie, who has a few claws of her own, gets fed up with Hiro's patronizing attitude, saying, "Well, I thank God every day that I'm in the presence of the man I love instead of having mediocre sex with strangers." "Not all the sex I have with strangers is mediocre!" shouts Hiro in her best sitcom manner. It probably doesn't help Hiro's case that she considers New York to be the capital of self-actualization, which, in her case, manifests itself as a job in marketing, earning $60,000 a year, a figure she constantly throws around, trying to impress the others.

Hiro is a notably grating figure around which to build a play, and her halting progress toward self-knowledge isn't terribly compelling since we're always three steps ahead of her. Kentucky has a way of going to extremes, defining the characters one way before reversing itself without explanation. This is especially true of Da'Ran, Sophie's fiancé, and his parents, who are made the butts of all sorts of glib jokes about their Christianity, until it is suddenly made clear that they are the sanest people onstage. (Interestingly, very little is made of the fact that Hiro and Sophie are half-Japanese, and that Sophie is marrying into a black family.) Especially egregious is the handling of James, who says and does unspeakable things, but is granted an entirely unwarranted forgiveness during the climactic wedding sequence. Then again, why not? At least, he doesn't show up at the church clutching the corpse of a dead cat, as does Masako, claiming it was the only being who loved her.

Winkler is a nervy and sometimes witty writer, but hasn't provided a foundation that can accommodate screwball comedy plotting, ugly family confrontations, and dashes of Southern Gothic eccentricity, not to mention musical sequences and a series of monologues in which the characters see into their (mostly sad) futures. At least, the director, Morgan Gould, has signed up a personable and talented cast. Hiro would be much, much harder to take were she played by someone other than Satomi Blair. Masako is an almost unplayable character -- the script refuses to address any question of her complicity in tolerating James' awful behavior, but the one-named actress Ako makes you feel her pathetic longing for the love of her husband and daughters. Curran Connor provides plenty of amusement as Larry, dispensing increasingly pro forma advice to Hiro over the phone. ("You have every right to feel those things. Okay, byeee!") Sasha Diamond's Sophie holds her own in her scenes with Hiro. In the overly idealized role of Adam, Alex Grubbs is so appealing that Hiro looks like an idiot for not snapping him up. Megan Hill is touching as Nicole, once Hiro's best friend and now all too aware that she has been forgotten. Jay Patterson packs plenty of menace as James.

The show also benefits from one of the stronger production designs I've seen at EST. Nick Francone's set looks like a cutaway version of a Quonset hut filled with objects of all sorts, ranging from a Budweiser sign to trophies and religious statues, plus "Kentucky" spelled out in electrified letters. With minimal changes, the set becomes the interior of a church. Suzanne Chesney's costumes feel right for each of the characters; she also comes up with some fanciful pink outfits for the trio of young ladies serving as Sophie's bridesmaids. Ryan Seelig's lighting and Shane Rettig's sound are both solid achievements.

By turns giggly, sentimental, and brutal, Kentucky is a pretty unpalatable mashup of styles and tones, none of which are enough to freshen up its well-worn you-can't-go-home-again theme. By the time Hiro decides that New York is calling her back, I imagine that her loved ones are only too happy to be rid of her. -- David Barbour

(5 May 2016)

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