A cross section of life in Nampa, Idaho, is delivered through the theatrical equivalent of cinematic jump cuts in “different words for the same thing,” a new play by Kimber Lee that opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Characters are introduced, Robert Altman-style, as they’re buzzing about their everyday lives. Plunged in their own turmoil or diverted by their current obsession, they are engaged in that common pursuit known as getting through the day.
A darker incident connects them, but that mystery isn’t revealed until a ghost-filled climax. If this secret ends up narrowing Lee’s play, the dozen characters she has impressively been juggling for nearly two hours of stage time still leave an expansive impression.
The daily grind here defines ordinary. There’s the doughnut shop, the Mexican restaurant and, of course, plenty of churches. Lee gives the quotidian a lyrical lift not so much through her language (which is as banal as her setting) as through her cutting and splicing of short scenes. Not all of the fragments earn their stage time — some strain for poetic effect, others seem negligible on their own — but collectively they wield a greater force.
Marta (Alyson Reed) and Henry (Sam Anderson) are first encountered buying coffins for themselves. Subsequently we learn that Marta is battling cancer. This is revealed when she’s trying on wigs, but it’s obvious that something has been burdening her all along.
One scene has Marta sitting down at the organ of the First Church of the Nazarene and playing a hymn in a manner far too intense for practice. She’s seeking transcendence but is called back down to Earth by a phone call about defrosting meat.
Marta and Henry lost a daughter under circumstances that no one is eager to recall. Their granddaughter, Sylvie (Savannah Lathem), the one connection they have to their dead daughter, visits them on occasion but doesn’t particularly relish her time there. She’d rather be kidding around with her Mexican American father, Angel (Hector Atreyu Ruiz), a charmer whose attention is hijacked by his restaurant business, or toddling innocently along with her Mexican American boyfriend, Frankie (Erick Lopez).
Sylvie likes her grandparents, but she experiences culture shock when she spends time with them. She refers to them as Old White People, which sounds harsher than she intends, but the differences are caricatured by Lee. The Waltons were funkier than most of these Caucasians. Marta offers Sylvie the big treat of green Jello for dessert. No wonder this otherwise sweet-natured girl hates these dinners — clichés are the only thing on the menu.
The most amusing character is Oren (Stephen Ellis), the choir director, who wants to step down from his post because his impersonation of Jesus in the pageant is killing his dating prospects. The most disagreeable character is Dottie (Monica Horan), a religious busybody who’s perturbed that Sylvie is dating someone of Mexican background.
These stories are framed by the return of Alice (Jackie Chung), Marta and Henry’s adopted daughter of Korean descent, whose long absence came as a consequence of the tragic event everyone is still sidestepping. She has arrived to drive her mother to chemotherapy in Boise, but she understands that her parents may not be willing to forgive her vanishing act.
She decides to prepare a communal dinner of Korean food at Angel’s restaurant to bring loved ones together and to foster the healing of wounds that haven’t closed in more than a decade. This may sound trite, but there’s something graceful about this cross-cultural culinary gesture.
The emphatic point of “different words” is that diversity, rather than being a cause of conflict and strife, is a source of potential healing in a society that has long divided itself on class and color lines. This is a vision everyone can stand behind, though the way Lee accentuates the blandness and intolerance of some of her white characters while making her characters of color seem intuitively wise and a whole lot more fun is problematic. Dullness and stupidity are equal-opportunity human characteristics, last I checked.
The bigger artistic issue, however, is the reduction of this network of stories to a single tragedy. A grief that initially seems universal and diffuse ends up seeming circumstantial.
Nonetheless, it’s good to see Center Theatre Group bestow such an attractive production on a work by a promising playwriting talent. Neel Keller, who directed Jennifer Haley’s “The Nether” last year at the Douglas, stages “different words” with a lyrical simplicity on a set by Sarah Krainin that dissolves and reconfigures with filmic ease.
This is a sure-footed ensemble offering. All of the performers are pretty much on same solid level, but Ruiz’s Angel, Lopez’s Frankie, Reed’s Marta and Ellis’ Oren left the deepest impressions.
‘different words for the same thing’
Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. (Please call for exceptions.) Ends June 1.
Price: $20-$55 (Ticket prices subject to change)
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes with no intermission