Review: Kentucky by Gift Theatre, an Homage to the Meaning of Home and Happiness

Joo Lee, Gavino and D'Addario as Masako, Hiro and James. Photo by Claire Demos. Kentucky is a richly drawn study of a family of characters who disagree and battle and are not quite sure they love each other. Mostly it‘s a story of what home and happiness mean to each of us and how we can sometimes be forced to explain that to others. Written by Leah Nanako Winkler, Kentucky is being staged by Gift Theatre at Theater Wit, rather than at their storefront home in Jefferson Park. The move gives them a chance to stretch their staging in a different venue. Director Chika Ike lets each character shine in a spotlighted monologue, brief or expansive, which helps us understand this complex family. The expatriate daughter (she left Kentucky for Manhattan) loves her job and her life in New York and comes back home for her younger sister Sophie’s wedding. (The two sisters are delightfully performed by Emjoy Gavino and Hannah Toriumi.) Actually, Hiro hasn’t come home to celebrate; she’s back to get her now born-again Christian sister to give up her fiancé, leave Kentucky and move to New York. A fool’s errand, that would seem. As she leaves for Kentucky and on several other occasions, Hiro consults with her therapist Larry (Ana Silva), who tries to talk her out of her Sophie mission. Hiro’s parents are a seemingly mismatched pair. Masako (Helen Joo Lee) is sweet and submissive to her angry, loud and abusive husband, James (Paul D’Addario), who was the principal reason Hiro left home. When Hiro arrives in Kentucky, Masako tells her how happy she is to see her and how angry she was because Hiro never comes home. “Home?” Hiro says, looking around. Clearly, this isn’t her home any more. Hiro is happy to see her old friends Nicole and Laura (Emilie Modaff and Maryam Abdi) and to reunite with her old boyfriend Adam (Martel Manning). Adam’s moment in the spotlight lets him explain why he loves Kentucky. Gavino, Abdi and Modaff. Photo by Claire Demos. Adam: I bet you feel sorry for me. Because I’m still here and you’re in the big ole’ city! I bet you’re wonderin’ why I never left! Hiro: Noooo. (pause) Well. Maybe a little. Adam: I just really love Kentucky. Hiro:…why? Adam: CUZ IT KICKS ASS! And it’s that friendly! We got bourbon trails. Horses. The Wildcats. Big Blue Nation. White fences. Derby pie. Hot browns. Beer cheese. Chicken fried steak. Kentucky fried chicken. Ale81. Mint juleps. I got a house. A yard. Nature surrounds me. And even though Hiro has a few seconds of doubt when Adam tries to persuade her to stay in Kentucky and marry him, she knows that she has chosen to make a home in New York. Sophie is marrying Da’Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes), son of Ernest, a Christian minister (Michael E. Martin). Ernest and his ebullient wife Amy (Jessica Vann) welcome Sophie into their family. Hiro’s angry father is there in person, calm for the moment. And the wedding proceeds. A little lagniappe in Kentucky is Sylvie, Masako’s beloved cat, played by Martel Manning in a baggy red fleece cat suit. Sylvie often sounds like a cat and sometimes even looks like one. Unfortunately, he succumbs in act two and Masako grieves and carries around a cat corpse in a plastic bag for the rest of the play (including at the wedding). At the wedding rehearsal. Toriumi and Deanes as Sophie and Da'Ran, center. Photo by Claire Demos. Director Ike takes advantage of the variety of characters and dialogue in the two families represented and treats all of them, including the born-again Christian characters, with respect. I have one caveat with the script, the direction and performance. D’Addario as Hiro’s father James is a cardboard redneck and deserves to be presented more three dimensionally. The bridesmaids (Abdi and Silva) perform interludes of song and dance in pink gowns to music directed by Modaff and choreography by Vann. Sound design is by Aaron Stephenson. Scenic designer is Ryan Emens with lighting by Rachel Levy and costumes by Rachel M. Sypniewski. Playwright Winkler shares some of the biography of her characters. She’s from Kamakura, Japan, and Lexington, Kentucky. Her other plays include God Said This, Two Mile Hollow and Death for Sydney Black. She started out self-producing comedies in 2006-12 with her now-defunct theater company, Everywhere Theatre Group, and has won many awards and honors. Kentucky by Gift Theatre continues through November 16 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets are $42 (discounts available) for performances Thursday-Sunday. Running time is 2.25 hours with one intermission.
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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.