Food, as Proust elaborately illustrated with a dunked madeleine, provides a portal onto the past. The smell of fried butter is all it takes to transport us to our childhood kitchens on school mornings. A chemically scrumptious store-bought cookie and glass of cold milk can bring back the aftertaste of adolescence.
In “Aubergine,” Julia Cho’s moving drama about a chef taking care of his father in his dying days, memories of mealtimes summon all the unresolved conflicts between Ray (Jinn S. Kim) and his father, Mr. Park (Sab Shimono, who performed the role in the play’s 2016 premiere at Berkeley Repertory). In the last stage of liver disease, Mr. Park lies mute in a hospital bed that has been set up in his dining room so that he can end his life more comfortably at home.
Ray has agreed to take care of him, though he’s daunted by the task. Lucien (Irungu Mutu), an intuitively attuned nurse who was once a refugee, is there to guide Ray through the process. But it’s the emotional backlog that makes this quiet vigil so difficult for a son who has long felt his father’s disapproval.
Thrifty and practical, Mr. Park, who left his native Korea as a young man for a new life in America, is the opposite of a foodie. Having a son who is a master chef means nothing to him. He wanted Ray to wear a white collar, not a splotchy apron.
In a flashback scene, Ray is humiliated by his dad for using his emergency credit card to buy an expensive set of professional knives. In another scene, Ray recollects preparing his father an elaborate multicourse gourmet meal after finishing cooking school, only to find his unimpressed father later that evening slurping down ramen.
The play, sensitively directed by Lisa Peterson at South Coast Repertory, gives all the characters a chance to share familial memories of food. Cornelia (a pungent Jully Lee), Ray’s on-again, off-again girlfriend who was born in Korea but raised mostly in America, recalls growing up in a household with four refrigerators stocked to the brim by a mother who wouldn’t dare entrust others to make her family’s meals — a somewhat oppressive atmosphere that diminished Cornelia’s appetite for years.
Uncle (Bruce Baek), Ray’s father’s brother from Korea who speaks barely a word of English, shares the sadness of his mother, who was considered the best cook in their town but couldn’t get Ray’s father to appreciate her prized dishes. (English supertitles are projected onto the set when Uncle speaks.)
Cho has written “Aubergine” around a constellation of themes. The structure of the drama is associative. Food offers sustenance, a source of life, but it’s the imminence of death that reawakens these gustatory remembrances. Food isn’t just food. It’s a language of love — and therefore also a language of loss.
The author of “The Piano Teacher,” “The Language Archive” and “Office Hour” (all of which premiered at South Coast Rep), Cho moves to her own meditative rhythm. In “Aubergine,” which I first encountered at Berkeley Rep, the writing slips dreamily from the past to the present, from English to Korean, from narrative to dramatic exchange.
The pace is as unhurried as it is unpredictable. A long prefatory monologue by Diane (Joy DeMichelle, conspicuously good), a character who seems utterly disconnected from the rest of the play until the final scene, talks rapturously about a pastrami sandwich her father prepared for her on the night before his surgery for the cancer that would eventually claim his life.
Stories about food turn into stories about identity. Lucien recalls the trauma of living in a refugee camp with not enough to eat. As a gift, he gives Ray an aubergine he grew himself in a community garden. It’s jumbo-sized, unlike the more flavorful smaller ones Lucien remembers from his unnamed home country. But calling it “aubergine” instead of eggplant restores some of the lost delicacy.
Uncle wants Ray to make a magical turtle soup to heal his father. He has brought a living turtle with him for just this purpose, but Ray doesn’t have the heart to slaughter the poor creature. Nothing can prevent his father’s death, and Ray has his own preternatural instincts when it comes to communicating with food.
Although his tendency in the past has been to abandon commitments and duck complicated emotions, Ray slowly opens himself to the people who have gathered to help him during this final reckoning with his father. Peterson’s production — duskily lighted by Peter Maradudin on a quickly metamorphosing set by Myung Hee Cho and featuring a coordinated ensemble that grasps the feeling underlying the drama — has a discreet efficiency. The staging doesn’t dally but there’s enough stillness to allow emotion to drop like a stone into a pond.
The ripples become more noticeable as death draws near. Kim’s Ray, guyishly deflective with tattoos running defiantly up his arms, allows the ending of his father’s life to transform him even without the benefit of mythological closure. All his culinary brilliance cannot induce his father to open his mouth, taste his offering and say: “Thank you, son. I am proud of you.”
But something else comes through in “Aubergine” — history, familial and cultural — served with the reverent love of a ritual meal.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 16
Info: (714) 708-5555 or scr.org
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
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