Dysfunctional family plays, often with a black sheep, are common theatrical fodder. Leah Nanako Winkler’s uneven play has originality going for it, but its prodigal daughter is the weakest character onstage.
Masako (Ako) is in a Kentucky hospital receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer surrounded by family. Her husband of 27 years, James (Jay Patterson), is a non-drinking alcoholic, apparently grown kinder. The large, somewhat grizzled man sells “rocks” (minerals) at a flea market and sings Karaoke for fun. He’s attentive, but inexpressive. (Casting of the couple emphasizes differences making the relationship more interesting.)
Born Again Christian daughter Sophie (Emma Kikue) is solicitous and ever present whenever not at her Men’s Warehouse job. She and her mom pray together, though one gets the sense Masako is a nonbeliever. Self-centered, needy daughter, Hiro (Satomi Blair), who gets along with no one, has returned home from the city. She’s squired around by old high school friend John (Tom Coiner), who, to my mind, is expendable.
Interaction is credible. Masako suffers, but works at being positive. Sophie is furious at Hiro’s obliviousness to the gravity of the situation, the way her older sister treats both mom and dad. Hiro looks for any distraction she can find, even coming on to the married John. Very gradually things change, but by the time Hiro extends herself, connects with Sophie and somewhat with James…
Dramatization takes place at AA Meetings (with no fourth wall), the hospital, and wherever Hiro and John find themselves. Though I understand the playwright is trying to flesh out the delinquent daughter, latter scenes seem repetitive and weak. Part of the problem is that Hiro is totally unsympathetic. Other characters are well drawn. Conveying love is seen in radically different iterations. Winkler’s memory scene is lovely.
Emma Kikue and Satomi Blair
Ako (Masako) is the best thing on stage. As a cancer patient almost always confined to bed, you might think dramatic opportunity would be limited, but the actress gives us a wide range of believable emotion and physical reaction. Halting, accented speech illuminates the character. Facial expression is priceless. Maternal feeling permeates. Her final scene is charming.
Emma Kikue (Sophie) is aptly overwrought. If the director hadn’t given her a screaming scene, tone would have been otherwise appropriately sustained. Kikue has invested herself in the role. She’s theatrically grounded. Everything comes from somewhere. She listens.
As John, Jay Patterson offers a fine Kentucky accent and a quiet core ostensibly achieved by not drinking anymore. He lives, as do most alcoholics, in the center of a cyclone. Addressing AA Meetings and pride in his endeavors are convincing, difficulty with tenderness palpable, singing appealing. Patterson is less good with James’ daughters.
Director Morgan Gould’s staging works well. Small business – opening the blinds each day, for example, adds verisimilitude. Sophie’s physically aiding her mother and a sweet recollection of the past are beautifully handled. James’s low key relationship with Masako is deft. Characterization, however, is hit or miss and there’s entirely too much unnecessary yelling.
Tom Coiner’s John is just bland. (Part of this is the playwright’s fault. What’s the point of him?) When in the “car” with Hiro, she bounces, he doesn’t. Satomi Blair is so opaque, it’s as if she hasn’t figured out what Hiro is thinking or feeling.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s hospital Set is highly realistic.
Photos by James Leynse
Opening: Satomi Blair, Emma Kikue, Ako, Jay Patterson
Primary Stages presents
God Sad This by Leah Nanako Winkler
Directed by Morgan Gould
Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St
Through February 15, 2019