Kentucky begins with Hiro (Emjoy Gavino), a young New York professional, as she plans her first trip home to her small Kentucky town in years. Hiro’s abusive father (Paul D’Addario) has kept her away, but she is making an exception to travel home for her sister’s wedding. Or rather, as she reveals to her therapist (Ana Silva) in the opening scene, to sabotage her sister’s wedding; she believes that 22-year-old Sophie (Hannah Toriumi) is far too young to make such a decision. Throughout her journey, Hiro is serenaded by a Greek chorus of sorts, played by Ana Silva and Maryam Abdi, who alternate between singing about the events and playing background characters.
The tone here hews heightened and comedic despite the serious issues explored in the script; director Chika Ike has managed to weave together the two extremes quite well. Kentucky at The Gift Theatre is a delightful comic romp wrapped around a heart-rending family drama, that asks pressing questions about the long game of self-identity, and breaking cycles of abuse.
As a coming of age story with a singular protagonist at its center, the throughline of the play rests on Emjoy Gavino’s shoulders. Gavino is more than up to the task, portraying a wry and sarcastic personality who is easy to empathize with. Hiro’s gaping flaws shine brilliantly through, and we’re able to relate to her as she reacts to the chaos around her.
Paul D’Addario churns out a disturbing yet wildly entertaining performance as Hiro’s father James. He is a man fueled solely by rage, spite, and a fantastic lack of self-awareness, capable of turning even the most inane conversation into a shouting match of epic proportions. Helen Joo Lee is positively heartbreaking as Hiro’s mother Masako, offering us an empathetic glimpse into the mind and choices of someone who stays with an abuser for decades on end. There are many moments where you feel justifiable pity for her situation, but you also understand Hiro’s frustration and anger as she watches her mother continue to make excuses for James. The large ensemble gives excellent performances across the board, buoying up what could have been a heavy family drama with humor and wit. Nonetheless, this show might be triggering for an audience member with an abusive background.
The set (Ryan Emens) is simple and elegant, conveying the essence of the wide-open spaces inherent to the setting. Three murals — mostly made of long, horizontal blue and purple streaks that could be a sunset, or a river — hang on each of the walls, and are balanced by a coarse wooden floor. Props and set pieces are mostly pushed up against the wall, giving the space an appealing cobbled-together feel, as Hiro sorts through the detritus of her life.
There are a few aspects that seemed confusing and plopped-in to me. For instance, the few brief musical numbers, sung by our two Greek chorus-type characters, didn’t seem to have a clear purpose that I could see, and distracted from the affecting personal drama at play. In general, I liked most of the heightened and strange elements (Hiro’s childhood cat (Martel Manning) is played by a human in a fuzzy suit, and speaks perfect English), as they accentuate the surreal nature of going home again after a long time away. The purpose of our two otherworldly narrators however, who mostly speak in impenetrable riddles, eluded me despite good performances.
Ultimately, Kentucky ends up being a thoroughly satisfying evening because it forces Hiro to reckon with lessons we could all find useful. As her attempts to sabotage the wedding become more and more farcical, we begin to see that this past which she has so thoroughly divorced herself from has more sway over her than she thinks. Hiro explains at length her rightful hate for her abusive father — but the more control she tries to exert over her sister and mother under the guise of helping them, the more she sees her father’s dysfunctional tendencies shining through in her own behavior. Hiro has clawed her way out of Kentucky and into a wonderful and functional life in New York — “I make sixty thousand dollars a YEAR!” she shouts at various points. However, the events of the wedding cause Hiro to realize that she really doesn’t know herself at all, or even who she’s even supposed to be, a contrast that makes Kentucky fascinating to watch.
So how do you break the cycle of abuse? Well, that’s a big question. And there is no single answer, but certainly part of the solution comes from truly reckoning with your past. You can’t escape by trying to outrun your childhood; it will always catch up with you. Rather, the only true escape comes from understanding. Kentucky is the story of the very beginning of that process, and it addresses it with the care and respect the topic deserves. It is a beautiful, soaring gut-punch — entrancing, timely, and incredibly moving.
Kentucky runs at Theatre Wit until November 16th.
Maryam Abdi (Bridesmaid 2, Laura)
Paul D’Addario (James)
Ian Voltaire Deanes (Da’Ran)
Emjoy Gavino (Hiro)
Helen Joo Lee (Masako)
Martel Manning (Adam, Slyvie)
Michael E. Martin (Ernest)
Emilie Modaff (Nicole, Grandma)
Ana Silva (Bridemaid 1, Larry)
Hannah Toriumi (Sophie)
Jess Vann (Amy)
Leah Nanako Winkler (Playwright)
Chika Ike (Director)
Ryan Emens (scenic design)
Rachel Sypniewski (costume design)
Rachel Levy (lighting design)
Aaron Stephenson (sound design)
Emilie Modaff (music director)
Jess Vann (choreographer)
Dwight Sora (dialect coach)
Sarah Luse (production manager)
David Preis (technical director)
Lena Aubrey (master electrician)
Alex Oparka (stage manager).