NYC Theater Review: “Kentucky” by Leah Nanako Winkler

Satomi Blair & Sasha Diamond in KENTUCKY, Photo by Jody Christopherson

Satomi Blair (Hiro) and Sasha Diamond (Sophie) in Kentucky, Photo by Jody Christopherson

Showing in New York until May 22, Kentucky by Leah Nanako Winkler is a tumultuous and energetic ride through the lives of a Kentucky family on the eve of a wedding. It’s a play about home–home and family, for better and for worse. And it’s both over the top theatrical while also sweetly engaging and relatable.

Hiro’s younger sister Sophie is about to get married to a born-again Christian, six months after their first meeting. Hiro–returning back to Kentucky (which she insists is no longer home) from New York–is determined to free her sister from their abusive father, “brainwashed” mother, and the small world of Kentucky. And this is only the beginning.

Opening with a musical dance number, the lyrics “you are lovely and horrible,” sung to the sweet cadence of “My Old Kentucky Home,” give the audience their first glimpse of what’s coming. An ensemble cast of sixteen takes on this dynamic play that goes through emotional, awkward, farcical, cringe-worthy, and hilarious scenes with aplomb.

Kentucky is full of high drama and hi-jinks, but the story unfolds with a kind of earnestness despite its characters often being unsympathetic. “It’s definitely something,” my friend told me after the first act. Though the play gets points for its big dramatic scenes, I found the play’s quieter moments to be strongest and in its relationships, the emotional punch we look for in live theater.

I first heard about Kentucky through TDF, the foundation that runs the TKTS booth. I was intrigued by the piece, which noted that the play’s diversity (hapa family with a Japanese mother and white father, plus Sophie’s fiance is black) makes it “the rare Off-Broadway play about an Asian-American family that is not produced by an Asian-American theatre.” And I was in. In the way that I crave Asian Americans in movies, on television, and in books, I’ve come to crave Asian Americans in theater.

Satomi Blair, Megan Hill, & Emily Kunkel in KENTUCKY, Photo by Jody Christopherson

Satomi Blair, Megan Hill, & Emily Kunkel in Kentucky, Photo by Jody Christopherson

Kentucky does that. It’s diverse without being about diversity. Really, it does a lot of things. Sometimes, perhaps, too many things, but it is nevertheless telling an engaging story with a stellar cast–whose facial expressions were on point and visible to all in this intimate theater. When Hiro is picked up from the airport by her parents, the picture of the exasperated child-adult. When she’s with her childhood friends returning (but now with alcohol) to their high school glory days. When she’s so sure that she knows what’s best for her little sister. It’s familiar, even if you don’t always like Hiro, her friends, or family. To be honest, it wasn’t until we were fully into the second half that I actually liked anyone particularly much. But that’s not the point, because it is in trudging through the muck that we get the beautiful moments.

The cast of KENTUCKY, Photo by Jody Christopherson

The cast of KENTUCKY, Photo by Jody Christopherson

Admittedly, at times I found the play flawed–some of the monologues felt awkwardly scripted and certain tropes personally uninteresting (I’ve rarely liked breaking the fourth wall). But, there were also breakout moments that were really so strong. One in particular comes between the sisters towards the end of the play, and for me, it was the first time there was real empathy for both the characters and the audience.

Kentucky is a roller coaster ride, with its contingent ups and downs. Loud laughter (and quiet cringes) emanated from the audience (seriously, I sat in front of and beside two different guffawing–not joking–real loud guffawing, men). In the end, I was won over by the cast and the show’s moments of real heart.

Kentucky is presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre/The Radio Drama Network and Page 73. It is written by Leah Nanako Winkler and directed by Morgan Gould, playing through May 22. Tickets on sale here. It will be playing at East West Players in Los Angeles this fall.

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About Lily

East Coast Chinese American. I like thick-skinned dumplings and hard-covered books.
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