(l to r) Jennifer Lim (Cornelia), Tim Kang (Ray), Sab Shimono (Ray’s father), and Joseph Steven Yang (Uncle) in Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Rep. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com
L to r: Jennifer Lim (Cornelia), Tim Kang (Ray), Sab Shimono (Ray’s father) and Joseph Steven Yang (Uncle) in Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com

Although intellectually we understand that we will die, most of us try to avoid contemplating death — either our own or of those we love. Julia Cho’s poetic new drama, Aubergine, makes us confront the heartrending loss of a parent and the painful grieving process that follows. Interlaced with the theme of loss is food — and its invocation of childhood, memory and love.

An affecting emotional, but fragmented drama, Aubergine begins with a moving monologue by Diane (marvelous Safiya Fredericks) about her deceased father’s favorite food. I was teary within the first minutes.

The scene then shifts to the main story about the death of a stern, elderly South Korean immigrant (Sab Shimono), who struggled to make a life for himself and his son, Ray, after the premature death of his wife. As an adult, Ray (fine acting by Tim Kang, TV’s The Mentalist) and his father had little in common. Ray is a dedicated chef, whereas his father, who seemed to take no enjoyment from food, believed that cooking is a woman’s job. When Ray’s father is released from the hospital to die at home, Ray becomes his reluctant caregiver, guided by a kind and wise hospice nurse, Lucien (first-rate Tyrone Mitchell Henderson).

(l to r) Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lucien) and Tim Kang (Ray) in Julia Cho’s Aubergine at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com
L to r: Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Lucien) and Tim Kang (Ray) in Aubergine at Berkeley Rep. Photo: kevinberne.com

Ray’s erstwhile girlfriend, Cornelia (excellent Jennifer Lim), who speaks fluent Korean, telephones Ray’s uncle in Korea with the sad news of his brother’s impending death. When Ray’s uncle shows up unannounced, speaking only a smidgen of English, he uses charade gestures and various noises to communicate with Ray in needed moments of levity. Think of his arms outstretched while he makes plane noises and uses his few English words (Taxi, taxi!). There are many other amusing bits in the play, but the overall mood is dead serious, as Ray’s father lies in a hospital bed, eyes closed and unmoving, through most of the production.

With a talented cast and capable direction from Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director, Tony Taccone, the first act of Aubergine is cohesive, fluid and engaging. Playwright Cho has the audience in the palm of her hand, as we see the characters recall the foods of their childhood and each food’s meaning in their lives, even while they watch Ray’s father fade toward death.

However, in Act Two, it almost appears as though Cho couldn’t decide how and when to end the play. We sit through several sad scenes, each of which might have become a suitable conclusion to the production, but which together make the work seem long, disorganized, and ultimately anticlimactic.

Aubergine is a product of Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor, a program that encourages and supports contemporary playwrights, and commissioned Cho to craft this new work. She is a talented writer with several plays produced by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company and Public Theater. So perhaps she will continue to hone Aubergine so that it reaches its complete creative height.

The production, the first in the Rep’s new Peet’s Theatre (formerly the Thrust Stage) takes advantage of the 21st-century Meyer Sound system, and the innovative and effective stage improvements. We can hear the actors speak even when their backs are turned away from the audience. Subtitles suddenly appear on a screen when needed in the first act, and then disappear. In one scene in the second act, Ray and his uncle are far above the stage, looking down at a large image of a cemetery on the screen.

Despite the problems in the second act, Aubergine is an evocative drama, which tears at our heartstrings by exploring the travails of death, loss and resolution.

Aubergine is playing at Berkeley Rep through March 20. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

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Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...