May 15, 2008
By Zac Thompson
There are no whole families in the plays of Julia Cho. In fact, what binds their members to one another is a shared loss, a sudden amputation. A father takes off, a mother dies, a child vanishes. Missing persons haunt Cho’s families like phantom limbs, palpable in their absence. But they’re vulnerable to subtler forms of loss as well: sacrifice, attrition, diminishing returns. In her 2004 play The Architecture of Loss, a character grimly compares people to gloves that start to sag over time, as the wearer’s hands age and shrivel: “Little by little, life takes away the things inside you. Till at the very end of your life, you’re nothing but an empty glove.”
Underpinning this personal loss is a broader sense of cultural incompleteness. Most of the people Cho writes about are, like the playwright, Korean-American, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants. Hyphen-straddlers, they struggle to keep hold of a frayed connection to the old country and fit in in the new one. Consequently they’re estranged from the past yet not entirely at home in the present. Perhaps this is why Cho’s work feels so distinctly American. Set in the arid expanses of the southwest, her plays are pioneer dramas, populated by isolated families piecing together new lives for themselves based on uncertain hopes and scraps of memory.
In Durango, getting its midwestern premiere in a production by the Silk Road Theatre Project, these themes come to a head over the course of a family car trip to a famous scenic railroad in Durango, Colorado. The trip is the brainstorm of patriarch Boo-Seng, who’s been laid off from his nondescript office job in Arizona after 20 years of dutiful service. A 56-year-old widowed immigrant without prospects, he finds himself at a loss, full of the regret and longing of a man who’s sacrificed for his family, done what he was supposed to do, and still come up short.
Along for the ride are Boo-Seng’s two sons, who carry hurts of their own. The family fuckup, Isaac, has just returned from a trip to Honolulu, where he’s sabotaged his chances of getting into med school by blowing off his interview. Jimmy, the eager-to-please golden child, is a high school swimming champ agonizing over his attraction to another boy on the team. Both Isaac and Jimmy pine for their gentle mother, who’s died of cancer; they have a kind of grudging respect for their father, but his thick accent and stubborn insistence that they succeed keep them at a distance. Neither of them knows that Boo-Seng has lost his job.
Playwrights love road trips, with their forced intimacy amid unfamiliar surroundings—they’re a way to throw characters together so that they can discover deeper truths about themselves and one another. Cho’s no exception. In the car and at the roadside stops where most of Durango is set, secrets come out, old resentments are re-aired, tensions bubble over. But what Cho ultimately lays bare over the course of 19 deft, penetrating scenes is the extent to which this family is defined by what it lacks. All that Boo-Seng, Isaac, and Jimmy have lost and will never have hangs over the proceedings as in a Chekhov play. Korea and the boys’ mother remain out of reach. Isaac’s early potential has fizzled. Jimmy has begun to realize what he’ll have to give up to remain the hope of the family. And with profound clarity Cho shows how Boo-Seng’s choices have alienated him from his sons and from himself. When a stranger asks him what he wants to do next, he finds the question unanswerable. “I don’t know. Not anymore,” he replies. “Too late. All of it. Too late.”
Like most of Cho’s work, Durango is quietly devastating, and Carlos Murillo’s staging is fittingly both stark and tender. Marianna Csaszar’s austere, boxlike set is painted with a desert landscape, suggesting at once confinement and wide-open spaces. The cast’s understated but detailed performances let the play’s series of small, tense moments build to an emotionally shattering climax. As the brothers, Dawen Wang and Erik Kaiko establish an appealing familial rapport and evoke the right mix of confusion and longing. And Joseph Anthony Foronda conveys both Boo-Seng’s tight-lipped facade and the weariness and regret hidden just beneath it—a portrait of a man whose future is as empty and airless as the desert around him.