We’re in a Chinese restaurant and some nearby apartments, so there’s an element of the familiar here, and yet this engrossing slice-of-life drama offers some subjects we don’t encounter too often on stage.
American theater is full of dominating patriarchs and matriarchs in their autumn years, divvying up their kingdoms or atoning for long-hidden sins against their families. Rosanna Yamagiwa Alfarowho– has just become a Huntington playwriting fellow at the age of 72–focuses this play instead on the present friendships, love lives, friendships, aspirations and fears of a collection of Harvard Square denizens in her age group.
One of them, Koji (Glenn Kubota), is, like Alfaro, a Japanese American working in theater. A director of student productions at Harvard, he is offended when asked to work on a World War II internment camp play. He’d rather direct “King Lear.” Koji dislikes feeling his foreignness to the point where he envies his son Peter (Alexis Camins) for being half-white. At the same time, he quips about how all Asians age with grace, he plays into the American stereotype of the relentlessly strict Asian father, and he ultimately gets ahead in his career by playing the part he has long rejected: a supposed scholar of Asian drama.
Koji doesn’t have too many Leareqsue problems. His mind is as sharp as tack and his central focus is his own present happiness. But he does have a late-life crisis when his best friend Jeremy (Ross Bickell), a novelist and English professor, begins to suffer some serious health problems. Koji feels for his friend, and can’t bear the thought that a wit like Jeremy might soon be unable to return the ball, verbally. His reaction seems introspective, though in comparison to those of his wife Emily (Kippy Goldfarb) and their son Peter, who flock to Jeremy’s side.
Koji adoes have a truth-telling jester to contend with in the person of Jeremy’s sister, Trish (the always-wonderful Karen MacDonald). A victim of the recession, Trish has lost her real estate job in New Hampshire and moved in with her brother. She’s less refined in her speech and manners than the Cambridge set, and so she serves as a roving foil for each character.
Her strangeness in the neighborhood is emphasized visually by Allen Moyer’s set, which seems to place the play’s restaurant and living rooms at the forefront of forest of bookshelves. Trish’s greatest clash is with Peter, Koji and Emily’s angsty (and in fact not quite angsty enough) son, who, as a young man in his twenties, earning minimum wage and living with his parents, can likewise be viewed as a squatter.
It’s a distinctly domestic drama, compelling, even with relatively low stakes. Trish, Peter and Emily, who is a (presumably underappreciated) artist, orbit around Koji and Jeremy. When Jeremy’s health falters the whole center of gravity shifts and everyone must adjust their perspectives.
These characters are rich and their conversations are textured with gallows humor and barbs. “Before I Leave You” offers a worthwhile peek into the lives of some of our neighbors on the Red Line.