The homecoming prompted by weddings and funerals is a staple of American family dramas. But in Leah Nanako Winkler’s hands, old tropes burst open with startling insight and dollops of acidic wit. In 2015’s Kentucky, now in a local premiere at Gift Theatre (which has moved into more spacious digs at Theater Wit for this show), Hiro (Emjoy Gavino), the eldest daughter of foul-mouthed abusive lout James (Paul D’Addario) and lonely beaten-down Masako (Helen Joo Lee), goes home to Kentucky to try to talk her younger born-again sister, Sophie (Hannah Toriumi), out of marrying at age 22. She thinks she knows best, but every encounter Hiro has in her old hometown reminds her of how little she actually understands about herself. Running away isn’t the same as getting away clean.
The familiar elements of awkward reunions line up: the old high school friends who don’t have much to say to each other (or lack the words to say it), the old high school crush who rekindles some passion and self-esteem in Hiro, the family that can’t remember what Hiro even does for a living. (She’s in marketing in New York, making “$60,000 a year!” as she keeps reminding them, though they still think she works as a barista.)
But Winkler, who was raised in Lexington and Kamakura, Japan, fills her script with poignant moments of truth. Nic (Emilie Modaff), Hiro’s best friend from their teen years, reminds her that she’s always there for her, even when Hiro can’t be bothered to return a text. The family cat, Sylvie (Martel Manning), once Hiro’s source of solace, hisses disapproval. In fact, the only people who seem to have a handle on how to build a healthy life together are Sophie and the family she’s marrying into.
This is a strangely hopeful play about people who have largely given up on hope but haven’t fully given up on each other. As the two singers who serve as choral figures croon early on, “These people have shaped you. These people are horrible. These people are lovely. You are lovely and horrible.” Chika Ike’s carefully calibrated staging mostly finds the lovely horrible truths about this fractured but far from stereotypical family. v