The ingredients in “Aubergine,” Julia Cho’s play receiving an effective staging at Everyman Theatre, are not all that unusual — cups of relationship issues and family tensions, dashes of heart and head, a smidgen of old-fashioned wit and wisdom. But by making food the thread that connects everything in her story about facing mortality, the playwright creates something fresh and rather touching.
And while there’s no mistaking the universal applicability of the struggles and emotions in this drama, the specific context here — the principal characters are Korean-Americans — adds richer layers and generates a distinctive dynamic.
The Everyman cast, sensitively guided by company artistic director Vincent M. Lancisi, taps into the work’s lyrical side as tellingly as into its smart humor. The acting is so unstudied that you hardly notice some of Cho’s manipulative or heavy-handed touches, one of them a preamble delivered by a character who isn’t integral to the plot at all.
That introduction comes from a woman who tells the audience about her adventures as a well-traveled foodie and an event that helped her to rediscover the simpler pleasures of eating, to reconnect with things that matter most in life.
It’s a colorful monologue, and Megan Anderson serves it up endearingly, but I’m not convinced “Aubergine” needs the device (I’m even less persuaded by the character’s brief reappearance later on).
The bulk of the play focuses on Ray (Tony Nam), an accomplished chef who discovers that his father (Glenn Kubota) is so ill that home hospice care is the recommended option. The two had trouble communicating beforehand — the parent never embraced his son’s career choice — and the distance between them is all the greater now that the older man can barely speak at all.
A hospice care worker, Lucien (Jefferson A. Russell), relieves a little of the pressure on Ray, while dispensing a little too much greeting-card-level sentiment and encouragement. (Lucien’s gift to Ray of an aubergine — the elevated term for eggplant — provides the play’s title.)
But Ray, needing deeper help with coping, turns to ex-girlfriend Cornelia (Eunice Bae), who reluctantly agrees to lend support.
Into this uptight home comes Ray’s non-English-speaking uncle (Song Kim), having rushed from Korea to be with his dying brother. Language isn’t the only barrier that has to be overcome (supertitles provide translations when Korean is spoken). There’s also the matter of a culinary challenge from the uncle that rattles Ray.
But that challenge also unlocks keys to the past. And confronting the past, as a way to seek answers and reassurances, to uncover the soul of one’s roots, is a major point of “Aubergine.” The way Cho underlines how inconclusive and frustrating such a search can be, but also how essential it is to try, gives the play its impact.
Nam offers a vibrant portrayal of Ray that reveals the young man’s hurt, fear and care in telling detail. Bae likewise excels at fleshing out Cornelia’s character, with its bitter surface and affectionate interior.
There’s so much sparkle in Kim’s eyes, so much communication in his gestures, that you almost don’t need the translations of his lines. It’s a warm and charming performance. Russell manages to keep Lucien sounding natural. And Kubota is an affecting presence even while spending much of the time silent in a bed, with eyes closed.