Durango begins on a bare stage, with just a chair and guitar far right.  A
young man wearing shorts and a t-shirt enters, sits, picks up the guitar and,
beginning to strum, sings a sadly nostalgic song.  “Main Street isn’t busy much
anymore. A neon girl dressed up with nowhere to go.”  He seems to be
recalling the past, a past which we begin in the next scene to discover.

We meet a middle-aged Korean man in his office, who is telling a Caucasian
man of about the same age of his pride in his two sons, the older of whom is
about to enter medical school, the younger of whom is his school’s swimming
champion.  The Korean is disconcerted when the other man, evidently his
inferior in the business pecking order, reveals that his own daughter is already a
physician. Little by little it begins to dawn on us why the other man is in the
Korean’s office. It is to escort him out of the building. The Korean man has lost
his job and, due to company policy, the other man will not allow the Korean
even a moment alone to reflect on what has happened to him.

This is but the opening of Durango, Julia Cho’s suspenseful, often
heartbreaking, beautifully written and beautifully staged drama of
generations, and cultures, in conflict.

The Korean is fifty-six year old Boo-Seng Lee, laid off just four years before he was
set to retire, with full benefits. We later learn, from the young whippersnapper
who informed him of the company’s decision, that Boo (unlike his more
culturally “American” coworkers) lacks “team building and communication
skills.” Thinking as a man of his own native culture would, Boo protests, “But I
thought my accuracy would protect me.” Accuracy clearly was not enough.

Boo’s two sons, unlike their father, are completely Americanized.  The older,
Isaac, has just returned from a university interview in Hawaii, which he
describes to the younger, Jimmy, as “the promised land.”   Jimmy, whom we
soon realize is the “good son,” has a secret (the first of many which Cho
gradually reveals to us).  He hates swimming, or at least he hates being forced
to compete by a father who, though he has never missed a swim meet, is
there only to sit in the back row, stopwatch in hand.  “He’s just there to check
up on me,” declares Jimmy, “not to support me.”

Boo, wanting to avoid dealing with what has happened to him, tells (orders)
his sons to accompany him on a road trip from their Arizona home to Durango,
which (he insists) is just a few hours away. Isaac, who just got back from the
Hawaii trip, only wants to stay home and study, he says, but Jimmy is excited
about spending time together as a family. “Now is the last chance,” he insists,
and Isaac reluctantly agrees to the road trip.

The journey ends up taking a good deal longer than a few hours, the sons’ not
having been told that Durango is in another state, Colorado. It also begins as
a deadly bore, as Boo takes advantage of the enclosed space to lecture his
sons on Korean history, and his own (you don’t know how lucky you are) tales of
a tough Korean childhood.  “When I was young, the temperature would get to
100 degrees below zero,” he insists to his skeptical sons.

If it seems that I have revealed too much about Durango’s plot, fear not.  This
is just the tip of the iceberg, as they say, and I won’t give away any more
secrets. (Well, maybe just one or two.)

Durango is reminiscent in some ways of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman in its
depiction of the effects of “progress” on an older worker, who thought
mistakenly that he was doing his job well, and in its focus on strained father-son
relationships. But it adds to the mix the culture clash between Boo’s Korean
upbringing and his sons’ very American way of thinking, an aspect of the play
that will be especially powerful to any second-generation Americans in the
audience, regardless of their parents’ native land.  One other way that
Durango differs from Death of a Salesman is that unlike Willy Loman’s Linda, 
Boo’s wife is dead.  Isaac remembers her well, but clearly Jimmy was too young
to have Isaac’s memories of her. “What was it like to be part of a whole
family,” he asks his older brother.  “Do you think she’d like me?” Some of
Durango’s most powerful moments are when, one by one, each of the
characters delivers a monolog in the mother’s voice.

Director Chay Yew, who also staged the New York production last year, has
brought out the best in each member of his cast of five. Working with the set
and video design of Donna Marquet and Jason H. Thompson, Jose Lopez’s
lighting, and John Zalewski’s sound design (all of whom do superlative work
here), Yew moves seamlessly from scene to scene—Boo’s office, Jimmy’s
bedroom, the family car, a run-down motel… Often, at the end of a scene,
the stage fades to near black, a single spot illuminating one of the characters,
as black-garbed stagehands swiftly move set pieces on and off stage.

As Boo, Nelson Mashita (who also did fine work in Cho’s Winchester House a
year or so back) is tightly-wound perfection.  When he declares, “Sometimes in
the morning I don’t know my face,” or “When did I learn to want so little?” the
effect is devastating. It is gratifying to see Mashita, who has done fine work in
many film and TV supporing roles, given such a meaty part to sink his teeth into.

Teenaged Ryan Cusino (coming off the hugely successful Paradise Lost:
Shadows and Wings) creates a sweet and sadly longing Jimmy, who (in a
surprising parallel to Paradise Lost) draws winged superheroes, the most
prominent of whom is “Red Angel.”  Older brother Isaac remarks that Jimmy’s
characters lack the fatal flaw that makes X-Men characters like Wolverine so
compelling, but Jimmy refuses to allow them any imperfection, just as he
cannot allow himself to be imperfect in the eyes of his father.  As the younger
son, whose role in the family seems to be to smooth things over, Cusino gives
an earnest and winning performance.

Completing the trio is Jin Suh, who, like Isaac, was born in Korea but raised in
America since childhood. Perhaps this has contributed to his absolutely
assured and completely natural work here, sure to be remembered as one of
the year’s best performances by an actor.  When he tells Jimmy, “You’re the
golden boy and I’m the f***up,” it is heartbreaking.   And when he assumes his
mother’s voice, he truly transforms himself into this other person, without a hint
of artifice. Unforgettable work from an actor with many great performances
ahead of him.

Veteran actor John Apicella is outstanding as always in two roles, first as the
worker who must accompany Boo “from the building,” and later, in a poolside
motel scene, as a retired schoolteacher who tries at first to convince Boo that
an abundance of free time isn’t so bad after all, and then admits that he’s
bored as hell. Tall and handsome newcomer Alex Klein does very good work in
three roles, as Red Angel, as Boo’s decades younger superior, who must give
Boo the bad news of his layoff, and finally as a speedo clad swimmer, the
glimpse of whose sculpted body forces Jimmy to confront his own burgeoning

Durango’s one hour and forty five minutes running time passes swiftly and with
building suspense, the opening night audience so on the edge of their seats,
that you could hear the proverbial pin drop. This is a production which
transcends East West Players’ mission as the nation’s premier Asian American
theater organization.  Durango is a play for everyone who has ever
experienced family conflict, and that’s just about everyone, isn’t it?

David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. 

–Steven Stanley
  September 19, 2007
Photos: Michael Lamont

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