Review: “Kentucky” at Ensemble Studio Theatre

David Roberts

  • OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic

Armed with the promise of her therapist’s willingness to offer phone support and clutching a bottle of sedatives from the same therapist, Hiro (played with a steely vulnerability by Satomi Blair) flies from New York to Kentucky to convince her younger sister Sophie (played with a charming but confident core by Sasha Diamond) not to marry Da’Ran (played with exquisite charm and panache by Ronald Alexander Peet) the born-again Christian man she has been dating for only six months. Hiro’s journey back to the home where she was verbally abused by her father James (played with an oddly likable scrappiness by Jay Patterson) is the tragi-comic tale in Leah Nanako Winkler’s “Kentucky” currently running at Ensemble Studio Theatre and jointly produced with Page 73.

This is an epic journey for Hiro, an attempt not only to “save” her sister but to seek closure in her struggle to finalize her separation and individuation from a dysfunctional and often abusive family. Rescuing her sister will somehow complete her process of healing and redemption. Ms. Blair and the brilliant ensemble cast of “Kentucky” bring Hiro’s quest to a level of believability and authenticity while managing to allow the playwright’s humor and magical realism to counterpoint the dramatic arc of the story. 

“Kentucky” successfully raises a series of important enduring questions. What is home and how does one know when one is home? How does one know he or she was loved as a child? What constitutes parental love? Is it possible for individuals with vastly different value systems to understand and accept one another? Does unconditional and non-judgmental love overcome the obstacles evident in cultural differences?

 Photo credit: Jody Christopherson

Photo credit: Jody Christopherson

Perhaps most importantly, Hiro’s journey highlights the important issues being raised in the current Presidential Primary Election process. America’s population is widely different and often unyielding in accepting differences in ideology, culture, and religion. “Kentucky” places these issues in a framework accessible to a diverse audience and explores the possibility of mutual understanding and pervasive acceptance. Near the end of the play, Adam (Alex Grubbs) shares this: “While people like me. We are inevitably, fleeting seeking solace and reaching - fleshing ourselves out always looking into mirrors staring at her own eyes and wondering if we are losing in some ways and winning in others.”

Ms. Winkler manages to raise these questions in a morally ambiguous way. Her script makes no judgement but allows the audience member to grapple with the questions and decide what is “right” or “wrong” or if those categories are even relevant. For example, just when the audience is convinced of Hiro’s father’s total depravity, James (Jay Patterson) displays an unexpected and honest vulnerability. When the audience decides Adam (played with a scintillating and deep charm by Alex Grubbs), the character displays a rich understanding of love and relationship. When Hiro’s mother Masako (played with layered sadness by Ako) seems beyond healing, the character is able to express a deep love for her prodigal daughter.

When one of Hiro’s childhood friends Laura (played with a fragile fortitude by Emily Kunkel) takes a chance on love with Adam, she makes him an offer: “If things don’t work out with Hiro, which it won’t, call me. I make a succulent Derby Pie that’s so rich with sweetness that it’ll heal any sick heart wound and make you keep rippin’ into every part for thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, eighths, ninths, tenths and so on and so on and so on and so on.” Ms. Winkler’s play is much like that pie. Its sweetness is in its parts, its slices. Each scene heals the sick heart wound of a nation seeking redemption and release.

But “Kentucky” resonates with the sweet bitterness of honesty. All is not well that ends well. Relationships remain fractured. Hiro invites her best childhood friend Nicole (played with a layered and deep sadness by Megan Hill) to visit in New York City but never really keeps in touch with Nicole whose final monologue is among the most powerful in the play: “I said okay. But I didn’t mean it. And I stayed here in Kentucky. I stayed here forever Hiro. And I got cancer. And I died. And you didn’t come to my funeral. And you thought about all the memories we had together. And you lit a candle for me. From your tiny room in your crammed apartment. And you wondered if the only thing that I had in life - the closeness to people that I had here. To my blind mother. To the closeness you and I once had-was missing from your own. And you went to bed. And you don’t think about me that much mostly.”

Perhaps the most enduring of “Kentucky’s” questions is whether or not we can survive as a nation if we fail to even think of one another in any significant way.


“Kentucky” features Ako, Satomi Blair, Mikumari Caiyhe, Curran Connor, Merissa Czyz, Sasha Diamond, Lynnette R. Freeman, Alex Grubbs, Marcia Haufrecht, Emily Kunkel, Jay Patterson, Ronald Alexander Peet, Samantha Sembler, Shannon Tyo, and Amir Wachterman as Sylvie.
“Kentucky” features scenic design by Nick Francone, costume design by Suzanne Chesney, lighting design by Ryan Seelig, sound design by Shane Rettig, choreography by Katie Spelman, and musical direction by Sariva Goetz. Joe Lankheet serves as production manager, and production stage manager is Eileen Lalley. Production photos by Jody Christopherson.

For complete production information, including performance schedule and ticket information, please visit Running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.