“Aubergine,” a new play by Julia Cho (a winner of the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize and multiple other honors), poses a unique challenge. The language is lovely, the dramatic structure is impressive and the polished Playwrights Horizons production directed by Kate Whoriskey is impeccable. But the play itself is a somber meditation on death and, as such, as relentlessly depressing as a three-day wake.
In a poignant program note, the writer observes that “when someone dies, one of the harder aspects is that you no longer get to eat with them.” That sense of melancholy is beautifully evoked in a sequence of scenes in which parents and children bond — or clash — over meals, a dramatic confirmation that food is, indeed, the fundamental symbol of familial love.
The play opens with a searing monologue from a woman named Diane (Jessica Love, bringing us close to tears) remembering a late-night snack that her father prepared just for her. She’s still drawn to that simple dish; but what she really longs for is to return to 1982, when “I am eight years old and my father is young, and he, just like me, is never going to die.”
That theme of love and loss becomes inextricably bound up in the remembered taste of those humble foods that evoke the sharpest memories of our long-gone loved ones — and our own lost childhoods.
As this perceptive playwright tells it, even a chef can lose his taste for food and the love it symbolizes. Ray (Tim Kang, his face a study in vulnerability) is a dispirited chef who no longer cooks, not until his visiting uncle from Korea (the soulful Joseph Steven Yang) convinces him to prepare a special meal for his father (Stephen Park), who lies close to death in a hospital bed set up in the long-unused dining room.
The dish Ray agrees to make is called “mugook,” and it’s the simplest, most basic soup prepared in Korean kitchens. As Uncle tells it, his mother once prepared a dish so exquisite that his older brother couldn’t bring himself to leave home. Now, he wants his nephew to repeat that miracle, to make a soup so delicious that Ray’s dying father will drink it up and ask for more. “And this time we won’t let him go. This time we will make him stay.”
That may be the most heart-wrenching moment in the play, but many other scenes also portray food in the context of life and death.
A hospice nurse named Lucien (Michael Potts, all heart) shares a memory of being a child among refugees “dreaming of dishes that our relatives — almost all dead — once made. This long unbroken chain of food, ending in a tent city, in a nowhere place, in a country that does not want us.”
Even Cornelia (the incandescent Sue Jean Kim), Ray’s girlfriend, recalls falling in love with him when he served her a bowl of fresh mulberries like the ones her father picked for her as a child. “There was a time when things tasted good,” she laments, “when there was pleasure and even joy in a mouthful of food.”
As for that aubergine, it’s a beauty, grown by Lucien in a community garden. “The best thing I ever ate was the first thing I ever planted,” he says. “And when I ate it I tasted something that almost reminded me of home.”