If this family seems familiar, Winkler wrote about them in her 2016 play, Kentucky, set seven years ago, when Hiro returned home for the first time from NYC in order to stop her sister’s wedding. Author Winkler, a Japanese-American, wrote the play sitting by her mother’s bedside in a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, while her mother dealt with an aggressive form of cancer and she does have a sister who is a born-again Christian, though nothing like Sophie. While the play has an air of authenticity, most of the family are so unpleasant and unlikable that it is hard to penetrate behind their armor and facades.
From the moment she arrives, Hiro is entitled and superior with her big city ways; Sophie is self-righteous and querulous attributing everything to God, while James, vulgar and earthy, is described in the script as a “scary guy.” Masako, firmly ensconced in the hospital bed, is calm and collected but she is so low-key – or weak from the chemo – that she doesn’t much register except as the others react to her. Hiro travels around town with John (Tom Coiner), an acquaintance from high school and single father of a 13-year-old son for whom he lives, who is so much nicer than she is that it throws her personality into strong relief.
A note in the script reminds us that Kentuckians are just as sophisticated as people from other states and that the family should not be portrayed as stereotypes. Unfortunately, however, we have seen these characters before in other combinations: the abusive father, the executive daughter with high expectations, the religious daughter who measures everything by her faith, the understanding mother who stands by and lets it all play out. Ironically, the most interesting and surprising character is John who Hiro doesn’t really know all that well and who has his own sense of morality and decency by which he lives.
The play does have some unusual structural techniques. Periodically, James gets up at his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and gives monologues about where he is now and his pet peeves, addressing the audience directly. Though not strictly pertinent to the issue at hand, these monologues are very revealing of his character and his actively dealing with his anger and regrets. Some of the scenes of the play are smartphone conversations, that staple of contemporary drama. The sisters do have a private scene together and ultimately the family reaches a rapprochement, reconciliation and harmony by the time the play is over.
Three of the actors (Satomi Blair as Hiro, Ako as Masako, and Jay Patterson as James) have played the same roles in the earlier play, Kentucky, seen at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2016. Emma Kikue as sister Sophie and Tom Coiner as classmate John fit themselves neatly into the family unit. Directing here as she did for Kentucky, Morgan Gould keeps the play moving swiftly along though it is mostly a series of conversations in varying combinations with little action. Winkler has a fine ear for dialogue but many of the scenes go on a bit too long; the play is mainly a waiting game to see how the mother will do as her treatments end while the estranged family members make attempts to get to know each other, though there are periodic digressions for things that occupy each of them. Some of the off-stage action seems a bit over-the-top and tacked on.
The production team could not be better. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set design is a very realistic hospital room which also allows for other scenes to take place on the sides of the stage or on the apron. The costumes by Jessica Pabst define the characters and tell us a good deal about them. Ryan Seelig’s lighting alternates between realistic and impressionistic. The sound design (sound effects and music) by M.L. Dogg is spot-in.
Theatergoers who have been in the same situation as Leah Nanako Winkler’s characters in God Said This may be very moved; others may be put off by the disagreeable nature of the majority of these people, family members who in other circumstances you would not want to get to know or spend time with. In any event, under the assured direction of Morgan Gould, the quintet of actors has some juicy if familiar roles to sink their teeth into. Winkler is a talented playwright who might need to step back from using her immediate autobiography to a write a truly remarkable play in the near future.
God Said This (through February 15, 2019)
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street, west of Seventh Avenue South, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or 866-811-4111 or visit http://www.PrimaryStages.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission