LET ME HEAR A BIG HALLELULAH FOR GIFT THEATRE’S CHICAGO PREMIERE SEASON OPENER
KENTUCKY BY LEAH NANAKO WINKLER!!
To believe or not to believe is a question that torments many people. The even bigger question is where do we go when we’re ready to shed the mortal coil? Can anyone tell me what we have to look forward to when it’s all over? I didn’t think so. Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler doesn’t really answer this question with her black comic work Kentucky, however, she does make some interesting points about people who struggle with the holy teachings and the world of sinners that we live in. Chika Ike, Gift ensemble member and winner of the Gielgud Directing Fellowship, the Bret C. Harte Fellowship and the Victory Gardens Initiative direct with a strong hand and a few chuckles.
The story starts out like a testimonial in a church. Maryam Abdi and Ana Silva come out in silky pink gowns singing an inspiring hymn. This is the height of the work – they are trying to touch heaven with their beautiful voices and praise the Lord so that he will know that they are trying to stay in his good graces. They are followed by Hiro (Emjoy Gavino), a young independent woman who has left her home where she was bred by a sainted mother, Masako (Helen Joo Lee), a sweet woman, married to James (Paul D’Addario) the epitome of a stereotypical big drunk hillbilly. Although there is no backstory on these two, it’s safe to assume that she is a war bride and he’s the luckiest man in the world. Paul D’Addario has played many badass characters in his career but this one tops all. James is filthy, uncouth, and abusive and when you and I are gobbling eggs and orange juice, he’s sucking on a crack pipe and sipping from a flask. He never works and stays drunk and high all day. He has no social skills and refuses to wear shoes. When he does pipe up all he has to say is something foul. Substance gives him the strength to tell the world to go Eff themselves. Even his mama (Emilie Modaff) is ashamed of him as she sits in at every family function puffing away on her cigarette ready to slam the door on him and anything else that gets in her way.
Hiro has escaped her family, moved to New York City where she has landed a great job. When she gets word that her younger sister, Sophie (Hannah Toriumi) is getting married to the son of an extremist minister, she decides to go back home, sweep her away and bring her to New York. The only problem is, Sophie is happy. She’s met the man of her dreams, Da’Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes). His parents love her. His father, Ernest (Michael E. Martin) is a passionate minister with a trophy wife, Amy (Jessica Vann). They have both welcomed Sophie into the family despite her strange upbringing. They have enough love in their hearts for everyone and probably a covered dish for every occasion.
Hiro is a lot like her father but is at the same time repulsed by him. She decides that she must take her mother and sister away from him. Masako will not leave. Even though Sophie is moving on she will still have her cat, Sylvie (Martel Manning), who unfortunately dies. She still keeps her in a Cheesecake Factory bag and takes her with her everyplace. Sophie is happy with her new family and will probably go on to flourish in the church, spreading the good word and having kids. Daddy James will probably wither and die. Now Hiro is not so sure she is doing so well. If she goes back to New York, she has money and a nice place to live, but she has no family, just a few friends and she is unable to commit to a relationship, so busy fleeing the liquored up ties that bound her to home and hearth. And all the while she talks to her therapist, Larry (Ana Silva) who she fails to listen to.
Honor thy father! Hiro is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. The harrowing journey she takes combined with strong determination, a grand chorus and a whorl of self-understanding is an exciting one. Paul D’Addario and Emjoy Gavino are brilliant as two strong personalities that try to fight each other to exhaustion, leaving marks on everyone in their wake.
Kentucky is an ambitious and clever story that runs through November 16 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Avenue. Tickets can be purchased by visiting the box office, phoning 773-975-8150 or by visiting theaterwit.org.
Review by Ruth Smerling