It Feels like a Big Play

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

It's easy to see why the folks at Center Theater Group chose to do a world premiere of Kimber Lee's different words for the same thing at the Kirk Douglas Theater.

It has the feeling of a 'big' play. It's not just the 12-person cast. Ms. Lee's play, on the page at least, has so many qualities that theaters look for in a 'new' play: it seems to be about race, about loss, about family, community, god. It crosses three generations. It feels filled with promise.

The setup is we're in Nampa, Idaho. It's a god fearing if somewhat racially divided community. We learn that the white's live on the south side, the Latinos on the north. Everyone seems to go to church... just some go to Father Joe's. Our story is going to swirl around Alice's family. Alice is an outsider - she's the adopted Korean daughter of a white couple. She moved to Chicago years ago and now family news has drawn her back. Unraveling why is part of the audience's journey.

The structure of the play feels a bit like a jigsaw puzzle of small short scenes that traverse the town as it slowly comes into focus. It's one of those 'everyone's connected we just don't know how' plays - like the films that Robert Altman made so masterfully.

Here's the quirky thing about theater and life, you can only remember the past through the filter of the present. Once you've experienced the end you can't return innocently to a memory of the beginning.  different words for the same thing is the kind of play it's tough to talk about without spoiling the ending. How you feel about the play will hinge on whether the ending moves you. You see, it's two hour structure is all built, all dependent on that final scene.

Now some of you are thinking, 'well, isn't every play like that?'

Yes, but Ms. Lee has chosen a style of writing that's much closer to a short story than a drama. As you bounce from scene to scene you're getting snippets of back story: pieces of the puzzle. While it's always fun to follow a mystery, I couldn't help feeling like I was missing something along the way. Scenes kept ending just as they were getting to the point of conflict. People kept talking about the things I longed to be seeing. I wanted the messy specificity of drama.

And then there's the final scene...

Judging by the teary eyes around me, Ms. Lee's set-up paid off. Without giving it away, it's a scene of familial redemption. What's noteworthy is the scene's most powerful moments happen not through the words but in silence. It's the silence that makes them so poignant. Absent all the messy details - we can project our own desires, our own family onto this scene.

Maybe that's enough for a 'big' play?

different words for the same thing plays at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City through June 1.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 1 hour and 50 minutes without an intermission.

Banner image: (L-R) Jackie Chung, Devin Kelley and the cast of the world premiere of different words for the same thing by Kimber Lee. Photo by Craig Schwartz.