Food is Love: a sentiment no one would dispute, so true that there could hardly be room for discussion. Yet, this simple statement contains multitudes – and drives family dynamics. It can certainly sustain a two-hour play, and there’s a thought-provoking, beautifully-acted example on view in Olney right now.
At the center of Aubergine, at the Olney Theatre Center, lies the relationship between a father and son, explored through stagecraft and character monologues as well as straight-on interaction. The projections and stage ninjas moving furniture around don’t distract from the finely honed performances, especially those of Eunice Bae as Cornelia and Tony Nam as Ray. As Ray’s dying father, Glenn Kubota is required to lie unmoving for most of his on-stage time, but manages once to spring upright and deliver a monologue of his own.
Ray became a chef in reaction to his father’s attitude towards food and cooking – he’s indifferent to food and sees cooking as women’s work. Left alone together by the death of Ray’s mother, their relationship is fraught and adversarial, yet Ray moves his father into his dining room to nurse him as he succumbs to liver cirrhosis. Ray’s only (cold) comfort is his former girlfriend, Cornelia, whom he dragoons into phoning his father’s estranged brother back in Korea.
Ray’s angst leads him to consume many cans of beer in his lonely despair. The audience almost despairs along with him, but wait – it’s early in the play! Lucien (Jefferson Russell), the hospice nurse, arrives. He is a refugee from an unspecified disaster, the representative of an alien culture dealing with his own issues of loss, yet resolutely cheerful, showing Ray a way out of his fugue. Lucien’s gift of an eponymous eggplant – “Call them aubergines, then they taste better” – signals that the situation is about to change. The audience is ready for it by this time.
Sure enough, just before intermission, Ray’s uncle arrives. He brings comfort in the form of soup ingredients, one of which is a live turtle. Ray is expected to dispatch and cook the “very expensive, special” chelonian and feed the soup to his father, who is mostly unconscious and beyond eating.
Ray’s Uncle (Song Kim) speaks no English; most of his dialog is accompanied by supertitles projected on the backdrop. This does not hinder his function as a dramatic device, as he deepens our understanding of Ray’s father and his relationship to his son.
The play is bookended by two scenes: a blond woman (Megan Anderson) beautifully delivering an affecting but seemingly-unrelated monologue about her father’s last meal, a lovingly-made pastrami sandwich; and an epilogue rather at odds with the tenor of the rest of the play, bringing the woman, and the sandwich, into the play’s action. It’s open to interpretation – have the characters transmogrified into their best selves, or perhaps obtained their final rewards? Hint: at the end, even the turtle is happy.
Aubergine, by Julia Cho, at Olney Theatre Center, now thru March 4. Co-produced with Everyman Theatre; directed by Vincent M. Lancisi; part of 2018 Women’s Voices Theater Festival.