Review: San Diego Rep’s ‘Aubergine’ proves a sensory feast as it explores love, loss and the power of food
There’s a striking subversion of expectations to Julia Cho’s “Aubergine”: The play turns something that can seem synonymous with life — food — into a symbol for the departure from it.
But that notion makes a certain elegant and elemental sense in this lyrical work, now getting a graceful and well-acted staging in its area premiere at San Diego Rep.
A beautifully prepared meal, after all, can be a transcendent experience, and if it doesn’t actually make you feel as if you’ve seen God, it might at least transport your mind temporarily from this earthly plane.
The pursuit of that kind of culinary rapture can take people to absurd extremes, as touched upon in the play’s very first scene — a monologue from a self-confessed foodie named Diane (played with wit and a touching frailty by Amanda Sitton), who admits: “We demand the sublime on a platter.”
At length, “Aubergine” itself pursues the connection between the delectable and the mystical a little too far, to the point where it seems to suggest the play’s main character has almost supernatural powers of perception. (On a more practical level, the show also feels as though it ends several times.)
But for the most part the work’s flights of the poetic and the esoteric stay grounded in authentic-feeling characters and Cho’s earthy humor.
Its story centers on Ray (Brian Kim), a hard-driven chef who happens to be Korean-American but is devoted to French cooking.
As we gradually learn, Ray’s profession has never impressed his dad (Dana Lee) much, and the clashes we see between them in flashback bring to mind Shakespeare’s line (from “The Comedy of Errors”) about how “unquiet meals make ill digestions.”
Now, though, his bedridden dad is near death. And as the two settle in together for the father’s final chapter in life — with a wise hospice nurse, Lucien (Terrell Donnell Sledge), serving as aide and confidant — food helps precipitate a coming-to-terms between them.
That arrives in the form of Ray’s effort to make a traditional Korean soup from a recipe provided by his uncle (Yong Kim), who has blustered in from the home country to see his brother but is stymied by his language barrier with Ray.
So in steps Ray’s ex, Cornelia (Audrey Park), who speaks enough Korean to serve as translator, although she amusingly chooses to use a little poetic license at times.
Director and Rep associate artistic chief Todd Salovey stages those scenes (and others) with welcome economy and lucidity; translated text is projected as the very animated Uncle, whom Yong Kim plays with an affecting mix of heartache and humor, makes himself heard if not understood.
Brian Kim fully inhabits the character of the bighearted but brittle Ray, for whom food has become a sensual and hugely soulful means of communicating. And Park brings plenty of wit and heart to the part of Cornelia, who grew up rebelling against the emotional import her own mom attached to cooking.
As Lucien, Sledge lends a strong sense of calm perspective. And while Lee’s father character lies inert for much of the proceedings, he does get a bracing monologue (as with each actor) that provides a glimpse of what shaped this difficult man. (He also turns in one rouser of a moment in which he butchers Ray’s credit card.)
Justin Humphres’ spare set, rimmed by a semicircle of rock, conveys an effective sense of people living between worlds. And Elisa Benzoni’s costumes (particularly Park’s stylish looks), Kristin Swift’s lighting and Melanie Chen Cole’s sound design — punctuated by gently brooding music — harmonize well.
The play, by the way, is named for the more ear-pleasing term used abroad for “eggplant.” As Lucien puts it, that name “starts to approach the beauty of the thing itself”; the same is true for how Cho’s language, at its best, is just about captivating enough to taste.
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Some exceptions; check with theater.) Through Feb. 17.
Where: San Diego Rep’s Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
Phone: (619) 544-1000
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