nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 17, 2006
About halfway through Julia Cho's new drama Durango, one of the play's protagonists, Boo-Seng Lee, a middle-aged Korean immigrant, sits near a motel poolside with a fellow guest, Ned, and describes the 20-year office job from which he has just been laid off. "I did not like my work," Boo-Seng tells him. "But I did it...All day long, every day, day after day...And I would feel...lucky. Lucky to have some place to go every day. But why? Why did I want so little? Where did I learn to want so little for myself?"
Whether they know it or not, that question haunts all of Durango's main characters: Boo-Seng, shackled for years in an arranged marriage, now a widowed father of two boys and forced into early retirement; Isaac, his 21-year-old guitar-strumming, slacker son; and 13-year-old Jimmy, an overachieving swimming prodigy. All three members of the Lee family are trapped in lives of very quiet desperation, each of them yearning for something they think is unattainable. Their first, last, and perhaps only chance to grab true happiness is symbolized by a road trip they embark upon to the title location, one that turns into a journey of self-discovery. The Lees don't always like, or even want to acknowledge, everything they find out about themselves. It's doubtful how much of their newfound self-knowledge they will act upon, or share with each other.
But, the audience knows everything the characters are holding back from one another, and therein lies the intense, heart-rending power of Durango. Cho's drama is the most emotionally shattering new play I've seen all year, and it is also the most satisfying. Following a long tradition of American domestic dramas like Death of a Salesman, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Long Day's Journey Into Night, Durango gets its strength and weight from the kind of catharsis that occurs when family secrets are revealed and confronted. But, unlike her predecessors, Cho shares more with the audience than she does with her characters. The catharsis that happens is the viewer's, and is brought on not only from watching the play's sorrowful events unfold, but also from experiencing Durango's brilliant company of artists working at such a high and fulfilling level.
As the play starts, Isaac has unenthusiastically returned from a med school interview in Hawaii, and Jimmy is contemplating a switch from the swim team to the school band (even though his college scholarship hopes are pinned to his dominance as a swimmer). Boo-Seng doesn't mention his layoff when he gets home; instead, he proposes a trip to Durango, Colorado. Why? His reasons are vague, but we will learn them soon enough.
Jimmy is enthusiastic about the trip: he is lonely living with his two uncommunicative relatives, and hopes their holiday will bring them closer together. Isaac dreads the whole thing: he's the family punching bag, and knows that being in such close quarters with his father will inevitably lead to friction.
Cho's writing throughout Durango is magnificent, parceling out information in deliberately subtle and intricate ways. Jimmy, it turns out, is an aspiring comic book artist whose superhero creation, a strapping, blond outcast named The Red Angel, reveals much about his inner life, including his reasons for wanting to quit the swim team. Isaac only speaks of his dreams in his song lyrics (which he shares with no one): "I know I was not made to sing / but I hope singing will make me." And, Boo-Seng's desire for Isaac to go to med school in Hawaii can be traced back to a long-lost friendship that pains him every day. Cho even brings the late wife/mother of the Lee clan to life in the dreams of her surviving family members, providing a poignant look into both her and them.
Director Chay Yew has crafted a production brimming with urgency that emphasizes the isolation the characters feel for each other and the world at large. He gives Cho's script room to breathe, and is not afraid of using silence to build suspense or emotion. Dan Ostling's versatile sliding panel set and Paul Whitaker's atmospheric lighting help underline Yew's work here. The contributions of costumer Linda Cho and sound designer Fabian Obispo are also dead-on.
The Public Theater's triumphant production is capped by an extraordinary cast. James Saito, Jon Norman Schneider, and James Yaegashi give powerful, moving performances as Boo-Seng, Jimmy, and Isaac, respectively. Yaegashi nails the slacker indifference that masks Isaac's sensitive but jaded core. Schneider breaks the heart with Jimmy's delicate, placating awkwardness. And, Saito is wonderful as Boo-Seng, giving us a three-dimensional portrait of a man whose strict old-school upbringing is at cross-purposes with his impulses. Ross Bickell and Jay Sullivan also excel in a variety of smaller supporting roles.
Early in the play, Isaac explains to Jimmy the enduring popularity of the comic book superhero Wolverine: "He was made to suffer. That's what his gift is. And because he suffers, because he feels pain, we see in him the truest expression of what we, as humans, experience." Those same words apply to the men of Durango. They exemplify, in some way, what we all go through every day. Join them on their journey, and experience the rapturous power of your own expurgation.