There’s something strangely gratifying about watching art that is set in your own backyard — the “insider” references, the keen familiarity, the idea that you’ll get jokes that might fly over the heads of people not from the region.
The 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre opened last week with Leah Nanako Winkler’s “God Said This,” a play set in Lexington by a writer from Kentucky and Japan. And it feels very much like a regional family drama.
Estranged daughter Hiro (Satomi Blair) has returned to Kentucky after seven years away on the East Coast to attend to her mother Masako (Ako) as she completes her final round of debilitating chemotherapy. Hiro’s story arc is very much a fish-out-of-water narrative as she tries to reconnect with her estranged family and high school friend, all of whom are very rooted in their Lexington lives.
Her sister Sophie (Emma Kikue) is a born-again Christian. Father James (Jay Patterson) is a recovering alcoholic, as devoted to his AA meetings as Sophie is to her church. Single-dad John (Tom Coiner) swings between being the responsible caregiver and the same dude he was in high school.
How would “God Said This” play outside this region? With attitudes across the country currently so deeply polarized, it isn’t hard to imagine the play’s Kentucky setting might tempt stereotyping.
It’s unclear — perhaps purposely — whether the story is meant to be Hiro’s narrative of homecoming and reconciliation or James’ story of redemption.
Patterson is compelling as James and serves as a sort of narrator for the story. He’s a tough-love, restrained curmudgeon who collects rocks, loves the internet and has been the wedge in the family — and still is. Despite the fact that Hiro’s homecoming is the inciting incident in the play and she gets the most stage time, James is more well-developed as a character and arguably experiences more growth.
In fact, both male characters — James and John — are more well-developed than the female characters, which is interesting considering the playwright is a woman. Coiner is delightful and lovable as the slightly stunted but still admirable John.
All of the performances, however, were top-notch.
But at times, the play threw complications at the characters that just felt a smidge “too much.” For example, poor Sophie suffers through not one, but two, tragedies during the play that are absolutely unnecessary to the plot.
My theater companion compared the play to the TV show “This is Us” — at times delightful, but also maudlin and, much of the time, manipulative. But mostly in ways that are good or, at the very least, intriguing.
“God Said This,” directed by Morgan Gould, is a solid start to the Humana Festival and an easy play to watch (although a handful of audience members didn’t return after intermission, which is baffling).
Whether or not you’ll be satisfied with the conclusion depends entirely on your particular brand of spirituality and what redemption looks like to you.
The play continues through April 8. Tickets start at $25.