MRS. K used to give piano lessons. But that was years ago. These days, she sits alone in her living room, eager to chat with anyone who comes to visit. Nobody does. Soon, we realize that things are not what they seem. For starters, Mrs. K is not alone. She exists, as do many people in Julia Cho's plays, in a twilight world crowded with memories that hover like ghosts.
In "The Piano Teacher," which opens Friday at South Coast Repertory, we discover what happens when Mrs. K confronts these ghosts by calling former students, ostensibly to hear what they're up to but really to answer long-nagging questions: Why did so many pupils quit so abruptly? Did it have to do with them? Or with her? Or, perhaps, with her late husband?
"The play is about a woman, a very good and very decent woman, who is invested in a certain version of her life," Cho says. "She goes more and more into the past, and you start to see her blind spots. Then you see another possible story besides the one she's telling. The play becomes a play about a story, and about stories being told, and about stories not being told. It's also about the impact that stories can have."
The murky relationship between fact and fiction fascinates Cho, who considers reality to be a shaky concept since everything we experience is a figment of someone's imagination. Such ideas have made the 31-year-old L.A. native one of the most intriguing young voices in American theater. In just a few years she has won acclaim at leading stages on both coasts with plays that resemble puzzle boxes, each constructed with a blend of intuition and intellect, each intended to unfold in ways that are poignant, funny, bleak or unexpected.
Cho doesn't usually write in real time, preferring to loop between past and present and to let her audience figure out what and whom to believe. While some characters resort to deception or denial, many are like Mrs. K, guilty mostly of being human. Even so, consequences must be paid.
"Julia's plays are piercing and unforgiving investigations into the soul," says director Chay Yew, who has helped to develop or stage most of Cho's major works. "She writes with startling clarity and without embellishment about the real people who inhabit our world. She makes no excuses for them and never sentimentalizes them.
"Her plays are deceptive," he adds, "because her characters often live and breathe between the lines ... they are refreshingly articulate yet inarticulate in their pains and joys and sorrows."
A play rewrote her destiny
CHO learned to play the piano when she was 6 or 7. "I was an Asian American girl in Southern California, so I had lessons," she says. "But I wasn't a prodigy."
Becoming a playwright took her a lot longer. As a kid in L.A. and Mesa, Ariz., where her family moved to when she was 12, Cho was a voracious reader but rarely attended the theater. Then, in high school, she visited New York and stumbled upon John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation."
"It was the first time I experienced theater as something very magical," she says. "The play is amazing. The language is really beautiful. The characters give these incredible speeches that really affected me. It was also further out than anything I'd ever seen."
Cho considered writing or stage careers to be beyond her reach, so she majored in English at Amherst College with the intention of becoming a professor. During her junior year, however, she went to Edward Albee's "Three Tall Women" and Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" on the same day while in London. "That's when I realized New York was not an isolated experience," she says.
Back at Amherst, she studied with playwright Constance Congdon, but she still could not envision herself as a full-time author. She entered the doctoral program in English literature at UC Berkeley, hoping to combine academia and theater. That didn't work. So she decided to spend a year in New York to study playwriting -- and stayed for six, completing programs at New York University and the Juilliard School.
While at NYU, Cho wrote "99 Histories," whose heroine struggles with, among other things, an unexpected pregnancy and a thorny relationship with her mother. Her first full production came in 2004, when the New York Theatre Workshop staged "The Architecture of Loss," in which a father returns to the family he abandoned years earlier. That drama was part of an informal Southwest trilogy. In "BFE," a 14-year-old girl endures the indignities of teenage life, albeit one complicated by a serial killer and a mother who offers plastic surgery as a birthday gift. In "Durango," a middle-aged man takes his sons on a revealing road trip.
Last year, Pasadena's Theatre @ Boston Court presented Cho's first New England tale, "The Winchester House," in which a young woman is forced to relive what happened (or didn't) between her and a man who was a friend of her parents.
Critics have likened her language to a spare yet lyrical form of poetry and have applauded her willingness to take chances. Some, however, say she juggles too many ideas and plot twists.
"During some of my earlier plays, I was still figuring out how to write a play," says Cho, who now lives in Santa Monica with her husband. "I would try to find the play through rewriting. Now my first drafts are where my fifth drafts used to be. That makes for a leaner kind of play."
Because many of her characters are Asian Americans, people presume that Cho, the daughter of Korean immigrants, wants to send a message or put herself onstage. "That's not it," she says. "It's just that I write in the world I know. All playwrights do that, but you get marked if you're in a certain ethnic world."
A moment from her life may form the germ of a story, but it will gradually transform itself into something quite different. "The experience of writing plays can be very mysterious to me," she says. "They just come. I know I wrote them, but I almost can't remember how I wrote them."
This idea called from the past
A couple of years ago, Cho began to think about a phone call she had received while she was in college.
"I had been home on break, and my high school piano teacher had wanted to catch up," she says. "I was too young to understand what she was looking for, so I didn't give her the time I probably should have. It's not a lingering memory, or a large memory.
"Sometimes a play comes out of the smallest thing."
Cho imagined someone whose motives were more complex than her teacher's. Soon, she says, "I began to discover who Mrs. K was, what her marriage was, who her students were."
As she wrote, the script grew darker, in part because she was reading about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. "I try to be careful that my plays not be about one thing in the real world," she says. "The news of Rwanda was just another seed."
A reading of "The Piano Teacher" was given at the 2006 Pacific Playwrights Festival, South Coast's annual showcase for new works. SCR decided to mount the upcoming production, which will be its 100th world premiere.
In directing "The Piano Teacher," SCR associate artist Kate Whoriskey has avoided overly theatrical effects and tried to let the actors and the words tell the story.
"Julia is a very careful writer," says Whoriskey. "Everything she does is a clue. She asks the audience to listen to her characters. She trusts the audience's intelligence. You slowly learn about a person, rather than getting the sharp, quick turns and bold hits that are common now. You go further and further because you are drawn by curiosity and a sense of caring."
Cho hopes her plays will take theatergoers on a journey, ideally a surprising one.
"I don't know if I'll ever have the effect on anybody that 'Six Degrees' had on me," she says. "I do think that one wonderful thing about theater is that you walk into this darkened room and anything can happen. My life changed because I walked into a room, not knowing what would be on the other side."
'The Piano Teacher'
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
Ends: April 1
Price: $28 to $60
Contact: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org