May 13, 2008

Road trip steers family closer together

The day that aging, graying Boo-Seng Lee is abruptly laid off at work, he shows no more emotion than he ever has. But he comes home to tell his teenage sons that the three of them are going on a road trip.

Durango, he says. Famous. There is a train, goes up into the mountains. Two or three hours.

Though the brothers are equally incredulous, the younger Jimmy needs little encouragement to get excited about what will be the first family trip of his life. Isaac, though, isn’t thrilled when begging fails to get him off the hook. Any amount of time spent in a small, enclosed space with his Asian father is not Isaac’s idea of a fun time, which turns out to be a fair assessment. Julia Cho’s play Durango is smart and thought-provoking, but definitely far from light-hearted family fun.

The two-hour-long show, appropriately intermission-less, chronicles the Lees’ drive from Arizona up to Durango, CO, which for most of the play is no more than a gleam in Boo-Seng’s eye—or alternatively, an ancient brochure in his shirt pocket. Neat effects give an edgy and amusing look to tricks that simulate driving, like the show’s minimalist use of rolling chairs, which required an impressive coordination on the part of the actors. And against the spare Southwestern landscape, the long–pent up troubles of each of the Lee men begin to surface.

Isaac is introduced as an aspiring medical student, just back from an interview at the University of Hawaii. He would rather play his guitar when his father isn’t around, but unfortunately for him, he’s no Ken Oak. His younger brother Jimmy gets top grades and is a city champion in swimming but spends his free time drawing superheroes. Many crucial emotional revelations are shared between the two, and the awkward dialogue, more daytime drama than teenage boy, is the only notable weakness of the script.

Joseph Anthony Foronda is remarkable as Boo-Seng, deftly infusing his stilted English with decades-old despair. Maybe a comparison to Death of a Salesman is inevitable, but Durango also deals with the permanent gap that culture and age has left between the boys and their father in what are the best moments of the play. “You loved that watch!” Jimmy protests in one scene, to which Boo-Seng replies, “I only like it because it was free,” knowing full well that his son will take him at face value.

If some scenes had theatergoers shifting in their seats, it was because Cho’s smart script hits very close to home. Sure, Isaac is the failure in the family—he was only second in his class. Stopwatch in hand at every swim meet, Boo-Seng is only a more extreme version of nine out of 10 Asian émigré parents that you’ve ever met.

Even in its clumsier moments, Durango is profoundly disturbing. There’s more than a healthy amount of racially-based self-hate to go around—it’s hard to ignore the fact that that the Red Angel, Jimmy’s comic-book protagonist and alter ego, is tall, white, and stereotypically All-American. Each Lee male, in turn, channels the late maternal figure of the family. The overall honesty of the play, however, keeps Durango out of the range of melodrama, despite a weirdly recurrent homosexuality theme. As bleak as it may be, Durango is worth seeing, particularly for its use of male Asian-American roles that are realistically complex and critical without being insulting.