NEW YORK—Can the aroma of a bowl of soup tear through one’s soul, reviving memories of profound pain or pleasure? Could a pastrami sandwich be the best thing one has ever eaten? Julia Cho’s remarkable play, “Aubergine,” will have you thinking so.
We first meet Diane (Jessica Love), a foodie, who describes her love of food and her intense, almost ridiculous search for the very best, the most elegant, the most unique of gustatory satisfaction, even traveling many miles to find it. However, she most remembers how her own father had made her a wonderful pastrami sandwich, the odors of melting butter and pastrami wafting through the air in the middle of the night.
The scene shifts to the heart of the play.
Somewhere in the suburbs of an American city, Ray (Tim Kang) visits his dying father (Stephen Park) in a hospital, where Ray is informed that the best choice for his father now is to be at home with family. Ray is the sole member.
Once home, Ray is distressed because he cannot persuade his father to eat anything. Lucien (Michael Potts), the hospice worker assigned to help the father through his final journey, serves also to support, educate, and comfort Ray, who appears overwhelmed by this terrible trial. It is possibly harder for him than for his father, whose end is imminent.
Lucien explains that it is typical for a dying person to refuse to eat. He also explains the specific signs of impending death, changes in breathing, skin color, and so on. Lucien never ceases to be amazed at how little we are prepared for the inevitable event of everyone’s life, although “there is nothing else for miles around, yet we cannot see it coming.”
Lucien gifts Ray, a former chef, with an aubergine that he has grown himself. This, of course, is a simple eggplant. But Lucien points out that it sounds more beautiful to use the French word, aubergine.
Lucien, surprised that Ray has not contacted any of his father’s family, leads Ray to contact his former girlfriend Cornelia (Sue Jean Kim) for Cornelia can speak Korean, while Ray cannot. Ray pleads with her to telephone Uncle (Joseph Steven Yang), the father’s brother in Korea, to impart the terrible news of his brother’s impending death.
Cornelia, although initially angry with Ray for his former mistreatment of her, agrees to make the call when she learns of the enormity of the problem. The ensuing phone call, although in Korean, somehow makes sense.
One evening, when Ray is asleep, a mysterious stranger enters the house and makes himself at home. The shocked Ray is made to realize that this man is his uncle. Uncle has brought food from Korea, including a live turtle. Uncle proceeds to make soup, hoping to please his dying brother, although Ray explains that Father simply will not eat.
Interspersed throughout the play are descriptions of meals prepared in the past by the participants. Ray had prepared the simplest of meals for Cornelia, one item only, and she had fallen in love with him at that moment.
Cornelia gave her own father the “best part of the fish,” as thanks for what he had given to her.
Back in Korea years ago, Ray’s grandmother, his father’s mother, had prepared the most delicious soup imaginable for her son, just before his departure for America. Heartbroken, Ray’s father did not want to leave, but his mother convinced him it was all right. The lovingly created soup was the mother’s way of permitting her son to go, even knowing she would never see him again.
But when Ray, years earlier, had prepared elegant dishes for his father, the recipes learned in chef’s school, his father had not been impressed. In fact, his father throws a fit when he learns that Ray has spent a small fortune for a very special knife that he needs in his work as a chef. Perhaps these incidents have led to Ray’s renouncing work as a chef, at least temporarily.
Unexpectedly, Ray prepares a meal for Lucien, from unusual vegetables that Uncle has brought. When Lucien expresses surprise that Ray knows how to cook them, Ray explains that the vegetables themselves told him what was needed.
The examples of food preparation, particularly for one’s family, accrue to the total picture of nourishment as love.
In the end, the cycle comes full circle as the woman Diane comes back into the picture.
Under Kate Whoriskey’s affectionate and affecting direction, performances are outstanding. Tim Kang meaningfully displays Ray’s tentative attitude toward the stressful situation; Sue Jean Kim skillfully portrays Cornelia’s ambivalence and ultimate enthusiastic cooperation. Stephen Park displays the proper sternness and temperament as Ray’s father. Joseph Steven Yang’s Uncle successfully encompasses seriousness and a comedic gift as he describes the vicissitudes of travel from Korea.
Michael Potts’s Lucien displays rich warmth and caring as he leads the entire family through the unique journey of preparing for a loved one’s death. Jessica Love impresses in two smaller but important contributions.
Scenic designer Derek McLane, winner of numerous theatrical awards and alumnus of 13 prior Playwrights Horizons productions, has made remarkable solutions to what must have been a daunting task of requiring rapid moves from one site to another, each so different from the one preceding. The set changes are swift and precise, almost cinematic in their smoothness.
At the end of the performance I saw, the audience’s applause was loud and prolonged, as if they were congratulating the chef for a wonderful meal. “Aubergine” was a marvelous experience in the theater.
416 W. 42nd St.
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or PHNYC.org
Closes: Oct. 2
Diana Barth writes on the arts for various publications, including New Millennium. She may be contacted at DiaBarth99@gmail.com