‘Durango’ dodges stereotypes, pitfalls

A lone man sits in the corner of the stage strumming a guitar. He’s quiet, unassuming, a typical singer-songwriter. Only two things keep this from being an average coffee house somewhere in California. He’s Korean, and it’s Arizona.

This somewhat incongruent scene opens the new production of Julia Cho’s “Durango” now at the Long Wharf Theater. Unabashedly presenting the oft-ignored Asian-American population to a theater audience, Cho and her team have succeeded in accomplishing two of the most difficult tasks in the theater: creating a magnificent play centered around minority characters, and making it about much more than race.

The events of the plot unfold organically following the singer and his family’s journey From Tucson, Ariz., to Durango, Colo., and back again, plowing through far more than just the miles of desert.

The father, Boo-Seng Lee, played with an almost musical finesse by James Saito, lives methodically, finally admitting by a motel pool that he has never done or even known what he wanted. As the patriarch of this American family, he has driven his kids to success. James Yaegashi plays Isaac, Lee’s eldest son, as a rough, cool bad boy who is headed to medical school under his father’s urgings, but his guitar is far more important than his biology textbook. Both of their attentions settle on the youngest son, the golden boy. A champion swimmer, Jimmy (played by Jon Norman Schneider) has far greater talents and secrets hidden beneath his awkward, bubbling surface.

The events unfold in the near present, and it plays very naturally. The staging never intrudes into the world of the play, keeping its integrity intact. The language, however, often falls short of perfect naturalism. The father’s diction is spot-on, and the slightly imperfect grasp of idiomatic English displays the playwright’s faculty with crafting speech. She has more difficulty with the slang of the two younger characters. Characters frequently take leaps and bounds around the stilted phrasing to try to keep the sound natural. This really only succeeds in creating more awkwardness.

The play gets smoother as it gains momentum. After the trip to Durango from Tucson begins, the tension between the characters pulls the audience in and keeps them rooted in this family’s journey. It stops being about their culture or their traditions and remains entirely focused on the raw human need for family and acceptance.

The most powerful moments come at the middle of the play, when the car turns and runs over a dog. The sons panic, screaming and watching the dog writhe on the pavement until the father grabs a hammer from the trunk and shatters its skull.

Director Chay Yew has chosen another brilliant piece of staging to convey the mother, who never appears directly on stage. She doesn’t need to. Each family member takes his turn playing a memory of the mother while her face is projected on the stage floor. Paul Whitaker’s lighting creates the perfect image during these scenes, just enough light to see their mother or wife in each of them.

The lighting coordinates perfectly with the sets designed by Dan Ostling to create a complete world, car included, that never feels false or chintzy. The music, on the other hand, makes the world suddenly shrink to the size of a TV set with its overbearing emotionalism better-suited to the daytime soaps. Thankfully it fades out in the second half of the play.

The play’s funniest convention is employed as Jimmy reads comics he’s written and an actor, Jay Sullivan, appears on stage to bring Jimmy’s characters to literal life. As his creative outlet, the comic serves to amplify existing themes without beating them senseless.

Durango will travel from the Long Wharf to The Public Theater in New York later this fall and has great potential to succeed. As soon as the transitions and first half of the play are smoothed out and the dialogue refined, there’s nothing to keep this play from becoming an essential part of the American canon. It fills a part of the theater both necessary and valuable to an ever more multicultural world.

Although the play could be labeled and dismissed as “Asian American” simply by the race of its characters, Cho chooses more ambitious subjects and tackles them with panache. She is not afraid to examine the frigid relationships that barely hold the family together, the silence surrounding homosexuality, and the sons’ struggle to find their identities without the help of their mother.

Balancing this play’s dual roles as a piece examining specific cultural identities and a careful dissertation on the universal human struggle, it would have been easy to tend toward either extreme. She could have taken the cultural dimension completely out of the equation and settled for a contemporary Miller or Ibsen-esque family drama. Alternatively, she could have settled solely on cultural stereotypes, it’s not worth listing them, and made a funny-ish cartoon without truth.

In the end Cho has created an arresting two hours of theater that has a far greater significance than any cultural label might suggest.

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