Food and Feelings Fuel Julia Cho’s Aubergine at South Coast Repertory

Learning to love. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR

If talking and reading about food, watching shows about it, and, of course, eating it, is your great passion, you will probably love Julia Cho’s play Aubergine.

However, if your take on food is more like Thoreau’s—food is fuel, and you eat to survive—you may also love it. Because while the preparation and consuming of food plays a big part in Cho’s beautifully written work, it’s as much about food as it is the Korean American characters at its center. Which is everything. And nothing. 

For Cho is a playwright graced with the rare and remarkable gift of making the personal universal, with the “what” that happens in her plays less important than the “why” it’s happening. Much like her masterfully written The Language Archive, which premiered at South Coast Repertory in 2010 and centered on a married couple documenting dying languages around the globe who were unable to communicate with each other, Aubergine is a play that uses those most effable of human constructs—words—to try to grasp the most ineffable mysteries of human existence: life, loss, death and the vagaries of memory.

And what you take away from it will hinge far more on how willing you are to absorb those Big Questions than whether your salivary glands moisten at learning that aubergine is another name for eggplant, or how to cook the perfect pastrami sandwich. 

Ray (a wonderfully deceptive Jinn S. Kim, who lives rather than telegraphs his transformation from cold and insular to fully engaged person) is a type-A chef who took to the kitchen mostly because his father, who immigrated to America after the Korean War, never stepped foot in it. But when he learns that his father (Sab Shimono, who either has the easiest or most difficult job imaginable, as he lies near comatose for most of the production) is terminally ill, his culinary interests disappear.

Forced to care for his father, Ray subsists on cans of beer and Ensure. But mostly he seems to be eating the words and questions he could never ask his father: Why was he so cheap? Why did he never show an interest in Ray’s culinary gifts? Why did he loathe most food?

Into this desiccated garden spring two signs of vitality: Lucien (a thoroughly engaging Irungu Mutu), the hospice nurse assigned to Ray’s father, and Cornelia (an equally vibrant Jully Lee), Ray’s co-worker and former girlfriend whom Ray mostly needs in order to communicate with his dad’s brother back in Korea. Lucien and Cornelia, while both life-affirming characters in contrast to Ray and his father, who are either dying or paralyzed by death’s presence, share different views on food. Lucien, an immigrant from an unnamed country who has seen his share of death, finds connection through food to all he’s lost; Cornelia, who never lived up to her mother’s expectations of devouring every bite of the mountains of food she heaped in front of her, hates it.

But for both, the concept of food is bundled in the notion of home, and ultimately, home is most what Aubergine is about. That becomes apparent when Ray’s uncle from the old country (a very funny Bruce Baek) arrives. Though they rarely talked, Uncle is convinced all his brother needs is their mother’s soup to revive him—and he’s brought the turtle along to prove it.

Saying goodbye. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR

Up to this point, this Lisa Peterson-helmed production works in every way; it’s funny, albeit tending toward gallows humor, and though it wrestles with serious issues, it’s quick-paced and accessible. But Cho seems to be in search of the perfect resolution, and there are a few short scenes near the end that hint at that search. It’s not that the scenes feel superfluous; they just don’t feel smoothly integrated into a play that is until then so seamless.

It’s not until Ray joins his uncle in Seoul and his father is finally lain to rest that the stabs at resolution finally strike Cho’s target: that death is less a transition into something else than a return to something that’s been a part of us all along.

That’s some heavy shit to wrap around your head on the page; the fact that Cho, augmented by her director and terrific cast, pulls it off onstage approaches the near-miraculous. 

But no review of this show should fail to mention Joy DeMichelle’s excellent bookending. I don’t know if the character of Diane is essential, but DeMichelle owns it, and it gives a heartening uplift to a play rooted so deeply in the frightening, awful truth of how sweet life can be. And yeah, that’s a Dylan reference, but who else to add that perfect seasoning to a dish all about effing the ineffable?

Aubergine at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. Through Nov. 16. $42-$88.

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