Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Lady Vanishes

September 26, 2007

L-R: Jin Suh, Ryan Cusino, and Nelson Mahita in Durango
Photo: Lori Shepler/LAT 2007

Los Angeles has become a bit of a hot spot in the last few years to see the smart and thoughtful plays of Julia Cho. We have been blessed with excellent productions of The Winchester House at the Theater at Boston Court and The Piano Teacher at South Coast Repertory and now East West Players has mounted Durango at the David Henry Hwang Theater. It’s a wonderful production that is well worth seeing. Cho clearly has an interest in the malleability and implications of memory in her work, and, while these issues are not quite as central to Durango as the former two plays, they are far from absent. Durango is no Rashomon-like dark fable but is instead a more domestic and purely psychological drama. The play concerns a father of Korean descent and his two American-born sons during a spontaneous family trip to the eponymous Colorado city after the father is laid off from his job of 20 plus years. Far from being a time for joy or connection, the journey pulls at all of the unraveling seams connecting the characters – the sons’ inability to live up to their father’s expectations and the father’s own disappointment in losing everything he has sacrificed for.

The backdrop and unspoken issue between these men is the loss of the mother years prior to the play’s action. Cho masterfully injects these issues by having the characters rarely speak about her outside of three brief soliloquies in which each man gives her a voice as they reenact their own private recollections of her. This material could easily run the risk of devolving into movie-of-the-week fodder, but Cho manages to rise above this by avoiding any hint of redemption – despite the gentle moments, Durango owes much more to Huis Clos than Steel Magnolias. There are three great performances to be seen including Jin Suh and Ryan Cusino as the sons and Nelson Mahita as their often-unapproachable father. Mahita is one of those fantastic actors working on this city’s stages who has never gotten the credit he deserves in Hollywood that has repeatedly placed him in character roles throughout film and TV. He is fantastic here without paltry sympathy or compromise. His performance is worth the price of admission alone.

Not everything works, however, and Cho could probably do without the younger son's heavy-handed comic book fantasy interludes, despite their eventual service to the play's homosexuality sub-plot. But there is more than enough other elements here to make the trip worthwhile, even if it doesn't involve a scenic train ride through the Rockies. Durango runs through the 14th of October.

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