In Kurt Vonnegut’s science-fiction story “Harrison Bergeron,” mentally agile individuals are brought down to the common denominator by means of radios that constantly play jarring sounds to break the listeners’ concentration. There’s a similar effect at work in Julia Cho’s play Aubergine: Again and again, just as a scene starts to settle in, a time-lapse blackout forces a reset.
There’s a dramaturgical reason for the jumps: The play is about a man keeping vigil at his father’s deathbed, a situation in which time takes on new meaning as the son reflects on their relationship. Still, the number of blackouts in Aubergine is extreme, to the point where Friday night’s confused audience at Park Square Theatre’s Andy Boss Thrust Stage wasn’t quite sure what to do. One independent-minded viewer decided to clap at each of the first several pauses, and the entire audience was faked out twice as they started to applaud the play’s conclusion only to realize the show wasn’t actually over.
Between blackouts, Cho’s 2016 play takes a novel approach to the themes of food and community. Whereas eating is commonly portrayed as a ritual that brings people together, here it’s an activity that drives families apart.
Ray (Kurt Kwan) is an excellent professional cook. Even before liver disease claimed his father’s appetite, though, the dying man (Glenn Kubota) was utterly indifferent to Ray’s gift. His approach to food was purely practical, and Ray muses that he chose his life’s work in part to claim a realm entirely apart from his dad.
Since Ray’s an only child whose mother died years ago, his emotional support comes from a former girlfriend (a feisty Sun Mee Chomet, making her Park Square debut), a hospice nurse (Darrick Mosley), and an uncle (Song Kim) who flies in from Korea to say goodbye to his long-estranged brother. All three encourage Ray to reach out to his nearly comatose father with food: the love language Ray knows best, even if his father doesn’t speak it.
The show’s melancholy mood complicates the notion that immigrants can just bring their cuisine with them. The eponymous eggplant is a gift from the nurse, who says it’s quite different than the smaller, more flavorful vegetables he knew in his homeland. Still, it’s food, and food is good... for everybody, it seems, except Ray’s stoic dad.
Flordelino Lagundino directs this first show of the first season he’s curated as Park Square’s artistic director. He moves his strong cast through a challenging scenario, with Kubota making a powerful impression despite having to lie asleep onstage for the better part of two hours. Two food-related monologues, one delivered by Chomet and one by Shanan Custer, are only tangentially related to the plot but serve to extend the play’s themes.
Still, to use a culinary metaphor, even a strong kitchen staff working with ripe ingredients can only do so much when the recipe hasn’t quite come together.
Park Square Theatre
20 W. Seventh Place, St. Paul
651-291-7005; through October 20