Gift Theatre Presents KENTUCKY Review – Comical Culture Collision

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Armed with Costume Designer Rachel Sypniewski’s touch of bare feet, Paul D’Addario as James dials his unending rant up and down in vulgarity and seething violence. He’d have to clean up considerably to earn the moniker of trailer trash. Think more trailer park outhouse with a broken overflowing toilet.

James, a diehard Luddite, is the family patriarch whose fulsomeness had sent his eldest daughter Hiro (Emjoy Gavino) running to New York City to get as far away from him and her family of origin as possible. She left her ever passive mother, Masako (Helen Joo Lee), and now born-again sister Sophie (Hannah Toriumi), her cigarette puffing grandmother (Emilie Modaff, who also plays Hiro’s onetime BFF), and all the pillbillies—as we learn to call them— of her High School years far, far behind.

Gift Theatre KENTUCKY
(left to right) Helen Joo Lee, Emjoy Gavino and Paul D’Addario

Or did she??-- as the two Sirens singing the prelude of the opening scene (and later others) observe. (In the program notes this singing Greek Chorus of two are called The Bridesmaids – played by Maryam Abdi and Ana Silva).

It’s the occasion of her sister’s wedding that compels Hiro to journey to her Kentucky home, much to the chagrin of her long suffering therapist Larry who is ever on phone intervention standby (Ana Silva).  Hiro - a self-perceived New York sophisticate-- wants to save her sister from an imagined fate worse than death of never breaking out of the toxic brew of their Kentucky childhood.

Gift Theatre KENTUCKY
(left to right) Emjoy Gavino and Paul D’Addario
Gift Theatre KENTUCKY
(left to right) Ana Silva, Emjoy Gavino and Maryam Abdi
Gift Theatre KENTUCKY
(left to right) Hannah Toriumi and Emjoy Gavino

If the above sounds like serious fare—bat that image from your mind’s eye ASAP and instead grab your hanky in readiness to wipe the tears of laughter away.  Playwright Leah Nanako Winkler infuses this study of cultural collisions with comedy—and ultimately a clearly heartfelt love of all humanity--  at every turn.  Her pen puts in fast-moving observations of her characters’ world that don’t linger long but instead pile up the ironies into a comic mountain.    Why would  Kentucky-born Hiro need to move to New York City for banjo lessons?  WHO died of auto-erotic asphyxiation--what?  It’s Martel Manning as Sylvie, the family cat, who most works to get us to forget the serious commentary underlying the buffoonery on stage. SPOILER ALERT!! His hilarious dying scene is one for the opera stage!!  How fun!!

It’s so much fun in fact that when Winkler ties up her script as a love letter to humanity of all zip codes and circumstances, it works to pack an even harder wallop, in this writer’s view.  All of these caricature characters become human-sized and lovable.  If you too sit firmly on the Blue side of our current culture divide, you may also quake at how lovingly Winkler insists we embrace  Sophie’s born-again fiancée Da’Ran (Ian Voltaire Deanes) beyond a 2D stereotype.   Her pen insists we see him as a multi-dimensional man who loves both his fiancée and to write poems about baseball that feature a line for each of the sport’s innings.

These are top-notch performances all (Director: Chika Ike).  And though this reviewer adored the script, it did admittedly elicit a few HUH? thoughts here and there, such as when the action pauses into a dance of sorts.  These interludes perhaps just remind us of our hunger for the meatier moments of the performance and script, of which there is no shortage.

The Cake, Keely and Du,The Recommendation, -- and now Kentucky too!!!  Chicago’s theaters are doing so much to help us see humanity on the other sides of our class and culture divides.  If you care about such matters, add Kentucky to your short list of must-see theater.


Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.

Watch this video showing the TOP PICK PLAYS of 2019


Playwright: Leah Nanako Winkler

Director: ensemble member Chika Ike

Click here to read more Picture This Post Gift Theatre stories.


Maryam Abdi (Bridesmaid 2, Laura), Paul D’Addario* (James), Ian Voltaire Deanes (Da’Ran), Emjoy Gavino (Hiro), Helen Joo Lee(Masako), Martel Manning (Adam, Slyvie), Michael E. Martin* (Ernest), Emilie Modaff (Nicole, Grandma), Ana Silva (Bridemaid 1, Larry), Hannah Toriumi* (Sophie) with and Jess Vann (Amy)

Production Team:

Ryan Emens (scenic design), Rachel Sypniewski (costume design), Rachel Levy (lighting design), Aaron Stephenson (sound design), Tessa Keller (props design, scenic painter), Emilie Modaff (music director), Jess Vann (choreographer), Dwight Sora (dialect coach), Sarah Luse (production manager), David Preis (technical director), Lena Aubrey (master electrician) and Alex Oparka (stage manager)


Through November 23, 2019

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm
Sundays at 2:30 pm


Theater Wit
1229 W. Belmont Ave.



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For full-priced tickets and ticket availability visit Gift Theatre website or call (773) 975-8150

Photos: Claire Demos

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago

Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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