Durango (Review)

Playhouse takes audience on a road trip to self-knowledge

Second-generation Korean Jimmy Lee (Andrew Cristi) is building up his vocabulary in anticipation of applying for college in a few years. He’s a bright, engaging kid, always looking for bigger and better words to say what he means. As he and his older brother Isaac (Peter Kim) differ about taking a road trip with their Korean immigrant father Boo-Seng Lee (Thom Sesma), Jimmy gropes for a word to describe why he feels it’s important. He finally lands on it: “auspicious.”

In Julia Cho’s new play, Durango, getting its Midwestern premiere at the Cincinnati Playhouse, “auspicious” not only describes the road trip on which she sends her three principal characters, it is certainly applicable to this script by a relatively unknown playwright. This is a story with a lot of real-life texture: Boo-Seng, in the opening scenes, loses his job with a tech company where his cultural differences have made him an expendable employee — especially given his age, 56. But his pride prevents him from sharing his loss with his sons, who he’s been raising as a single parent since his wife’s death a decade earlier. Now he knows his only path to success is through them. “Where did I learn to want so little for myself?” he asks.

The boys are real people, too. Isaac can’t seem to get a grip on life, although he has been a more or less successful college undergraduate. But his grades are not quite good enough for med school — a dream more his father’s than his own. As the story begins, he has just returned to their Arizona home after a trip to Hawaii to be interviewed for possible admission to the University of Hawaii. In our first glimpse of Isaac, however, he’s singing and playing guitar (none too well), in a forlorn song about being on the road and finding himself.

Jimmy, still in high school, has been a successful competitive swimmer, although he’s lost interest; he prefers to develop a comic-book hero, Red Angel, who he’s been sketching and imagining for months.

Neither Isaac nor Jimmy shares Boo-Seng’s notions of success. In fact, his aspirations are a long way from theirs, as we learn during a road trip to Durango, Co., that he persuades the boys to take — without much planning or forethought.

They’re together in a car, and conversations about difficult subjects wax and wane between the brothers and their father. Each of them, we learn, is disappointed with what he’s become and uncertain where he’s heading.

Cho’s script uses the believable details of life in an Asian-American family to illuminate in a more universal way how parents and children go down differing paths. Boo-Seng has notions rooted in Korean culture; his sons are thoroughly American.

As they clash, however, it’s less about the specifics of first- and second-generation immigrants and more about how parents and children in any culture connect and disconnect.

Cho gives each of the Lees a moment to recall their mother and wife — with each actor giving her character voice as she might have spoken at a particular moment. Each moment is moving: She tells Isaac how much she loves him as her firstborn; Jimmy is given advice for succeeding in life; and Boo-Seng is excoriated for some choices he makes. The presence of this unseen woman is strongly felt, even translated through these men (and the actors playing them — and her).

Director Wendy Goldberg has staged Cho’s script fluidly with powerful punctuation as the story moves from scene to scene, including several fantasy moments when Jimmy’s Red Angel comes to life (Roarke Walker also plays some related but more earthbound characters). As a security guard with the responsibility of walking Boo-Seng out of his former employer’s office and as a lonely man who offers Boo-Seng a beer and some conversation, Tony Campisi is a naturalistic anchor to some conversations that illuminate Boo-Seng’s alienation.

The scenic shifts are fascinating with Kevin Judge’s set, which initially appears to be a static wall of Southwestern scenes — a receding highway, a close-up of a double-yellow line, a square of cracked mud, several shots of sand. But these panels shift, slide and turn to reveal different set components — a booth in a restaurant, the kitchen of the Lees’ modest home, a hotel room and the suggestion of a car in which they spend much time — topped by an ever-changing sky, a blend of photo and video that has a life of its own. Durango does not bring us to a conclusive ending: The road trip fails to achieve its overt goal, but Jimmy, Isaac and Boo- Seng have come to know each other better and perhaps have more insights into themselves.

Where they're headed isn't revealed. In fact, Cho leaves us hanging. But that’s the nature of life, isn’t it? This fine play doesn’t offer pat answers, but it will make everyone who sees it think about where they might be going.

DURANGO, presented by the Cincinnati Playhouse, continues through Oct. 19. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.