“Weep no more my lady
Oh! weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,
For the Old Kentucky Home far away.”
— "My Old Kentucky Home,"
composed by Stephen Foster, 1853
Dallas — Home may be the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in, but in this case, maybe that’s not the best thing for anyone involved. In Kentucky, a 2016 offering from a rising new voice on the theater scene, playwright Leah Nanako Winkler’s own family life serves as the inspiration for the play. The play follows Hiro, once a Kentucky girl, now a hard-bitten, anxiety-ridden New Yorker, as she returns home hoping to stop her twenty-two year old, born-again Christian baby sister from getting married, while doing her best to avoid her dithering doormat of a mother and her abusive alcoholic father. The play is filled with flashes of greatness, but suffers from clunky expositional sections, thinly drawn characters, and a distressing tendency to make the subtext text.
Imprint Theatrework’s production, directed by Joe Messina, is innovatively staged as an ongoing wedding reception in the beautiful space at Arts Mission Oak Cliff, but can’t do much to overcome the weaknesses of the piece.
Having reinvented herself in the big city, Kentucky ex-pat Hiro (Monalisa Amidar) is determined to stop her little sister Sophie (Thi Le) from ruining her life by getting married at 22. Against her therapist (Mark Tam Quach)’s advice — though he does agree to be on standby for Hiro’s calls during her ill-conceived rescue mission — Hiro returns to the scene of the crime, Kentucky. She plots and schemes about the best way to put the kibosh on the nuptials while avoiding her mother Masako (Jojee Alvarez Allgood) and the triggering presence of her abusive father James (Russell Harris), a drunken redneck without a kind word for anyone. Along the way she reconnects with high school friends Nicole (Lizzie Combs) and Laura (Sonia Desai) for drunken reminiscing — and a recitation of which former classmates are dead from opioid overdoses and motorcycle accidents — and hooks up with high school crush Adam (J.R. Bradford). As the wedding looms closer, and even as Sophie’s new family proves their love for her far outpaces that of her own family, Hiro grows more determined to “save” Sophie and whisk her off to New York for a journey of self-discovery mirroring Hiro’s own. What Hiro’s failed to realize, however, is that she’ll need to reckon with Sophie’s own opinions on being “saved.”
Winkler’s dialogue, which the playwright acknowledges owes a debt to the manga comics she consumed in her youth, is highly stylized and at times more than a touch overwrought, making it a challenge for any actor. The 15 actors of Imprint’s production strove gamely to make their characters sound natural, with varying levels of success. Amidar’s Hiro, despite a tendency towards over-verbalizing her emotional state, is frustratingly opaque at times, and the relationship between Hiro and Sophie, the key to the entire piece, is never fully realized, though that may be more of a reflection of the script than any fault of the production. It’s similarly unclear how the audience is meant to see Masako and James, perhaps deliberately. Masako’s attachment to the family cat as a stand-in for her distant children culminates in a sequence that might be deeply troubling or comedic — but doesn’t settle on either. James is written as one-note until nearly the end of the piece, and Harris does his best to give the character a sort of gruff, plain-spoken charm for a brief moment at the play’s end, but it’s difficult to square this characterization with his past awfulness towards his family.
Other characters have brief moments to shine. Sophie’s groom Da’Ran (Andrew Denton) is charmingly earnest in his scenes with Sophie, and his parents, Pastor Ernest (Jamall Houston) and Amy (Patricia E. Hill), bring a welcome burst of warmth and humor to the piece. The character of Adam is underwritten, but J.R. Bradford gives him some unexpected depth, and Lizzie Combs’ Nicole brings a real sense of pathos to several confessional moments. Sophie’s bridesmaids (Madi Thoele, Bria Huckaby, and Pallas Lam), at times acting as a sort of hillbilly Greek chorus, and at others as a sort of 60s girl group, find the funny as enthusiastically born-again millennials (“Jesus is awesome!”). Lam is the only actor who doubles up on roles. In addition to playing Bridesmaid No. 3, she dons a mask to play the ancient family cat Sylvie and gives an almost Shakespearean performance at a crucial moment, getting the biggest laughs of the evening.
Imprint puts the audience right in the thick of it, seating them at tables mimicking a wedding reception layout and decorated with the requisite Mason jar centerpieces and providing wedding “programs” with a sly Bible verse included. Director (and Imprint co-founder) Messina makes full use of the repurposed former church — a pew on the small stage in the front of the hall doubles as a therapist’s couch, a sofa in James and Masako’s home, a bed, etc. — and the action moves from the center of the hall to the choir loft and beyond, keeping things nicely dynamic and visually engaging.
As beautiful as the venue is, the production seems to be between a rock and a hard place when balancing the sound design (by Riley Larson) with keeping the space cool. When the air conditioner is running, it is difficult to hear the actors, but when it is off, the space is sweltering. Hopefully a better balance can be struck as the run continues.
Kudos are owed to music director Scott Taylor for the appropriately basic wedding reception song choices. The costumes from designer Matthew Hawkins have some nice details — particularly the wide pink belt on Sophie’s wedding dress, mimicking the traditional Japanese obi in a nod to the family’s Japanese heritage; and Hiro’s burgundy maid-of-honor gown is striking next to the bridesmaids’ dusky pink and emphasizing Hiro’s otherness, but it seems like an odd choice not to more vividly contrast Hiro’s New York style with her friends and family’s more down-home looks.
Winkler’s star is on the rise. Following earlier accolades, she won the Yale Drama Series Prize for God Said This, a 2018 sequel to Kentucky; and is currently a Francesca Primus Prize finalist for Two Mile Hollow. Despite its flaws, see Imprint Theatrework’s Kentucky to get a taste of the early work of a playwright whose name, it’s safe to say, you should probably get used to hearing.