It sure is surreal and amusing to hear references to local haunts like Chinoe Pub and Fayette Mall in a play debuting at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.
I saw more than a few grinning faces that picked up on local references during the opening weekend performance of Lexington native and Tates Creek High School alum Leah Nanako Winkler’s Lexington-based play, “God Said This.”
The play opens the festival this year, centering on the effects of cancer on a family fractured by past hurts and cultural divides. Based in part on experiences in Winkler’s life, the story explores the conflict between Hiro and Sophie, two Japanese-American sisters and James, their white, recovering alcoholic, rock-collecting, Southern-accent sporting father as they all take turns sitting by the bedside of the Masako, the ailing mother and wife who holds her family together with her gentle and determined spirit.
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The play’s technical and performance elements work together to create an engaging experience that explores how crisis can bring people closer and transcend old wounds. However, except for references to local flair and the multicultural component of the show, it is treading on very familiar ground.
Morgan Gould’s nuanced in-the-round direction and a minimalist set design by Arnolfo Maldonado allows the characters’ emotional journeys to take the spotlight, especially succeeding in creating periods that capture the heart-wrenching moments that push each character to their best and worst.
There are several examples: Sophie’s significant pause and upbeat “yup” after her mother says she has soiled her clothes, or the fight between Sophie (Emma Kikue) and Hiro (Satomi Blair) which is ostensibly about a cancer Facebook group but is really about the two girls’ different approaches to handling the challenge of physical and emotional care taking of a dying parent.
Interspersed among the tension between born-again-Christian Sophie and New York transplant Hiro are playful and heart-stirring scenes with their father James (Jay Patterson), whose Kentucky drawl and humor frame the play’s events in a series of engaging monologues. Comic relief — and the occasional bout of wisdom — is the domain of supporting character John (Tom Coiner), Hiro’s high school friend who drives her around and helps her get perspective on her olife.
The ensemble cast perform admirably, including Ako as the chemo-ridden mother Masako, who unfortunately is the least drawn character despite being central to the family’s catharsis. Her devotion to her family and her kindness are strongly palpable and moving, but it is a shame we do not know more about her, including her role in the family dynamics pre-cancer.
Winkler’s second act breaks with chronology and satisfies some loose threads in the family’s back story while providing satisfying closure to the story.
While well-wrought and acted, “God Said This” isn’t particularly original, but it does show Winkler’s talent for creating relatable characters and for writing scenes that give actors room to sink their teeth into a role.
It may be too sentimental for folks with Hiro’s taste, but it’s message will make you want to go hug a loved one and to me that means it did its job.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
‘God Said This’
What: World premiere production of Leah Nanako Winkler’s play for the Humana Festival of New American Plays.
When: Through April 8; performances dates and times vary
Where: Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St., Louisville
Tickets: $29-$72, depending on show date and seat location