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In 'Aubergine,' Julia Cho turns choked-off emotions into a tale of sustenance

In 'Aubergine,' Julia Cho turns choked-off emotions into a tale of sustenance
Jennifer Lim, from left, Tim Kang, Sab Shimono and Joseph Steven Yang in Julia Cho's "Aubergine." (kevinberne.com)

Food is complicated, as any dieter can tell you. Eating, even for the naturally slender, is an emotional activity.

When the narrator of Marcel Proust's sprawling masterpiece, "Remembrance of Things Past," dunks his petite madeleine in tea, the world of his childhood, in all its forgotten sensual splendor, bubbles up from the bottom of his memory.

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In "Aubergine," a moving new play by Julia Cho at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, a meal is more than a meal. It's a form of communication, freighted with history, private meaning, hope for the future and grief for the past.

Ray (Tim Kang) is a chef who has hung up his knives after his ailing father (Sab Shimono) has been released into his care. Home hospice has been set up at his father's suburban home, with a visiting nurse, Lucien (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), guiding Ray through the ritualistic process of death.

A hospital bed dominates the living room, where Ray's father sleeps almost continually, waking only for an instant to register discomfort. He's dying of cirrhosis of the liver, though not much information about his medical condition is offered early on. The crucial fact is that he hasn't long to live. Ray is the only family member who can grant him this final dignity of dying at home.

This is one of two new works by Cho this season. The other, "Office Hour," opens in April at South Coast Repertory, which also produced the world premieres of Cho's "The Language Archive" and "The Piano Teacher." "Aubergine" marks a new maturity in her writing.

The production, directed with patient sensitivity by Berkeley Rep Artistic Director Tony Taccone, unfolds in a room of generic blandness. The functional decor (unapologetically arranged by scenic designer Wilson Chin) reflects something fundamental about Ray's father, a Korean immigrant whose wife died in an accident when their only son was still a boy.

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, left, and Tim Kang in Julia Cho's "Aubergine."
Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, left, and Tim Kang in Julia Cho's "Aubergine." (kevinberne.com)

Flashbacks offer a glimpse into the household dynamics. When Ray's father discovers that his son, an aspiring chef, has used the emergency charge card to buy an expensive set of knives, he berates him for the foolish expenditure. When Ray explains, "It's my livelihood. It's the one tool I need, the one tool," his father dismissively replies: "So go to supermarket, one knife is $10."

Ray tells the story of preparing an 18-course tasting menu for his father, eager to impress him with the skills he acquired at culinary school and at his internship in France. But the only response Ray gets to his parade of gourmet delicacies is the word "interesting," indifferently repeated after each dish. Later, Ray discovers his father eating a bowl of ramen in the kitchen — a rebuke to all his artistic effort and an indication that the two men are, in effect, separated by a common language.

Hardened by his childhood losses, Ray has a caged look about him as he sits at the kitchen table stewing over old grievances and worrying about his father's care. There's an obdurate quality to his anger, and Kang's remarkably honest performance articulates the feeling bodily, in hunched posture and sluggish movement.

Ray is clearly stalled. Not only has he turned his back on his career but he has walked out of his relationship with Cornelia (a wonderfully irate Jennifer Lim), who reluctantly comes back into his life after Ray asks her to call his uncle (Joseph Steven Yang) in Korea. Cornelia has some fluency in Korean, but communication is still rather challenging when this uncle hops on a plane to be there for his brother's last days.

Cho has created a situation that doesn't lend itself to easy drama. Ray is trapped in a room with a girlfriend who resents him, an uncle who can't speak a word of English, a father who's nearly comatose and a nurse who's quietly ministering to his fading patient. But the playwright succeeds in holding our attention, much like she did in her finely observed family drama "Durango," by appealing to our respect for unvarnished truth.

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The dialogue of "Aubergine" isn't overflowing with witty remarks, the plot isn't hurling toward phony climaxes, and the sentiment is hard-earned. There are moments when the playwright can seem as stubborn as Ray, who feels no compulsion to charm his visitors. But Cho profoundly involves us in the character relationships, which are always clarifying themselves, even when they seem to be at a complete standstill.

Lucien, who makes elliptical references to his background as a refugee, has an easy way with Ray's dying father, somehow understanding his groans and gasps. Lucien has the same intuitive knack with Ray, who hasn't merely renounced his livelihood — he's lost all interest in eating, subsisting on beer and his father's Ensure.

Knowing death as intimately as he does, Lucien has a robust respect for life. He brings Ray an eggplant from his community garden, a simple act of goodness that never becomes symbolically overloaded, even though the food supplies the play's title.

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Lucien prefers to call eggplant by its French name, "aubergine," and enjoys the smaller variety of his native homeland to the oversized American kind. But more important, he understands that food is a universal language of sustenance, spiritual and emotional as well as physical.

Life and death are bridged by eating. This point is touched on directly after mortality's shadow darkens Ray's world and he becomes more openly philosophical. But it's also captured in a more sprightly fashion by the live turtle that Ray's uncle asks to be turned into a medicinal soup — a request that flummoxes Ray, who prides himself on being able to cook anything.

The whimsical nature of the turtle brought to mind "The Language Archive," a far more frolicsome play by Cho that is evoked again here in a playful scene of translation. Cornelia, serving as interpreter between Ray and his uncle, translates not so much their exact words (supertitles are used to fill us in on what the uncle is saying in Korean) but what they ought to say to each other.

Communications at its most profound level transcends vocabulary. The actors, internalizing this central insight of the play, imbue their pauses and mute looks with heartbreaking eloquence.

Lim suggests Cornelia's love for Ray in the gaps in her bitterness. Henderson reveals Lucien's compassion in the character's unhurried presence. Yang shows that the uncle's gentle, plain-spoken nature is an attitude of the soul. And Shimono lying in bed motionless, a graceful emblem of imminent loss, brought me at several points close to tears.

"Aubergine" begins with a theatrical preface that by intermission seems irrelevant, though the character who delivers this introductory monologue (played by Safiya Fredericks) returns at the end unexpectedly in a play that follows its own rules. Cho's playwriting style isn't at all ingratiating, but it lures us into caring about characters who never fail to surprise us with their simple humanity.

This is a rare form of entertainment, closer perhaps to enlightenment than we are accustomed to in these days of superficial distraction. Berkeley Rep honors this touching new drama by trusting that restraint combined with sincerity is enough to keep us hooked.

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