By-the-book Durango has the ring of truth / by R. Sheth

May 12, 2008
By Hedy Weiss
Theater Critic

All American family road trip stories share common qualities. But, to paraphrase Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its particular way, so an endless number of variations can be spun on this theme.

Julia Cho's "Durango," now in its Midwest premiere by the Silk Road Theatre Project, where it has been directed with an appealing minimalism by Carlos Murillo, is a road trip with a difference. Most crucially, while it is set against the American landscape -- particularly the Arizona desert and the mountains of Durango, Colo. -- it deals with the problems, at once universal and specific, of a Korean-American family.

The patriarch of this small nuclear unit is Boo-Seng (Joseph Anthony-Foronda), 56, who had a miserably poor childhood in Korea, submitted to an arranged marriage, arrived in the United States and spent two decades working diligently at his corporate job. Now a rather introverted, self-conscious widower, he has two adolescent sons -- Isaac (Dawen Wang) and Jimmy (Erik Kaiko) -- who he is hellbent on seeing succeed.

Boo-Seng's life is sent into a tailspin when he is suddenly laid off from his job. Humiliated and angry, he decides to take his ornery teens on the relatively short car trip from their Arizona home to Durango, where they can ride a famous little mountain railway.

Isaac, a smart, guitar-playing kid with an attitude -- just back from a college interview in Hawaii, where he neglected to hook up with his father's mover-and-shaker friend -- has bad memories of earlier car trips. Jimmy, the high school swimming champ with a secret life that unspools in a notebook full of self-created superhero comics, is more amenable. Neither boy is aware of what has just happened to their father. For them, he always has been a bit distant, old-fashioned and compulsively achievement-oriented.

Using nothing but chairs with wheels to suggest the moving car, the three embark on what is a tense but in some ways life-altering trip during which secrets are revealed (and sometimes reburied) and memories relived.

Cho's play (with echoes of both "Death of a Salesman" and "Leaving Iowa") has a rather by-the-book progression, but it also has the ring of truth. Anthony-Foronda gives a sensitive performance, though he needs to balance introversion with vocal projection. Wang and Kaiko are easily likable and suggest a most believable brotherly bond. Walter Brody is just right as a retiree Boo-Seng encounters at a motel, and Austin Campion has the ideal (nude) body for his role.

Marianna Csazar's clever set (beautifully lit by Rebecca A. Barrett) features a beguiling neon sign of a diving girl and a motel pool. Jump in.

NOTE: Silk Road has just instituted a "rolling subscription" plan dubbed "Road Trips," by which theatergoers can sign on for tickets to three plays for less than $50. Each of the first 100 subscribers who sign up will also get a $25 bonus toward a dinner at Catch 35. "Durango" is the first show; next is "Pangs of the Messiah," Motti Lerner's drama about a family of religious West Bank Jews.