Thomas Wolfe to the contrary, you can go home again. Just don’t expect to have fun once you’ve arrived, not if the family you’ve left behind in the Appalachians is as dysfunctional as Hiro’s in Leah Nanako Winkler’s Kentucky, an entertaining but hit-and-miss East West Players West Coast Premiere that could be a whole lot better without tonal shifts that take it back and forth from over-the-top sitcomish to authentically real.

It’s news of her younger sister’s impending wedding that sends Hiro (Jessica Jade Andres) back to her old Kentucky home to persuade born-again Sophie (Jacqueline Misaye) that twenty-two is far too young to tie the knot with someone you’ve known only six months, and certainly not when a Big Apple life with Big Sis promises so much more than the Blue Grass State ever could.

ewp-kentucky-5 Given the toxic father-daughter relationship that was a major factor in Hiro’s escape to more liberal climes, her therapist Larry (Daniel Rubiano) warns her against the trip, but nothing will change Hiro’s mind. She’s going to bring Sophie back with her or else.

ewp-kentucky-3 Upon arrival, Hiro’s Caucasian father James (Jim Harnagel) turns out to still be the violent, foul-mouthed monster who wreaked havoc on his eldest child and continues to treat his cowed Japanese-born wife Masako (Dian Kobayashi) like chattel.

Happily for our hapa heroine, local hunk Adam (Rubiano) still carries a torch for the girl who got away (along with a hankering for hanky-panky that Hiro might just share).

ewp-kentucky-7 On a less promising note, Sophie seems unlikely to be persuaded that fiancé Da’Ran (Christian Telesmar), son of local preacher man Ernest (Mel Hampton), hasn’t been hand-picked for her by her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and seriously, who could possibly say no to Kentucky’s answer to Shemar Moore?

Will Hiro manage to get Sophie on the next plane out? Could Adam possibly convince his longtime crush to give small-town life another go? Can Hiro ever find a way to put her past behind her?

ewp-kentucky-2 These questions and more add up to an engaging if overlong two acts, and since playwright Winkler is nothing but not risk-taking, there’ll be more than a couple of songs and even a Shake-Your-Booty-For-Jesus production number along the way.

Unfortunately, director Deena Selanow too often has things careening over the top, a case where less would have added up to more laughs, more tears, and more believability.

ewp-kentucky-1 Not that there aren’t some very real moments along the way. Rubiano could not make for a more authentic, appealing Adam, and his scenes opposite Hiro in quieter, gentler mode are Andres’ best. There’s a genuine sweetness too in Misaye’s and Telesmar’s scenes together, and the two sisters’ second-act heart-to-heart is a winner as well.

Where Winkler herself falters is in making James so irredeemably monstrous as to strain credibility (how is it that Masako seems not a bit frightened of this man?) and so foul-mouthed (there’s a scene where about every fifth word to escape his lips seems to start with “c” and rhymes with “runt”) as to offend even the most open-minded theatergoer in a play that already offers more than its share of the f-word.

ewp-kentucky-6 Kentucky’s budget-minded West Coast Premiere savvily cuts its original cast size down from sixteen to nine, allowing Megan Therese Rippey (a sassy Laura), Rubiano, and Jenapher Zheng (a meow-riffic kitty) to play multiple roles, though having an actress in her twenties play Granny proves an old-age-mocking misstep.

ewp-kentucky-4 Glenn Michael Baker (assistant scenic design and prop master), Sara Ryung Clement (scenic design), Howard Ho (sound design), Hilda Kane (lighting design), and Lena Sands (costume design) give Kentucky a particularly stylish production design, and Ho scores bonus points for his original music and musical direction. Dialect coach Samara Bay has most Kentucky locals speaking with the local twang, but curiously not all.

Brandon Hong Cheng is stage manager.

Following a series of East West Players winners, Kentucky disappoints as often as it delights. Despite offering a number of pleasures along the way to its gratifyingly touching climax, it is not the 51st-season opener that this reviewer (and longtime EWP fan) was hoping for.

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East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 16, 2016
Photos: Michael Lamont


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