AATP’s production of Durango (November 17th and 18th 7:30pm, November 19th 5:00pm, Roble Dorm Theater) rattles pre-Thanksgiving family nerves. The play follows Boo-Seng Lee (Hank Tian) and his sons, Isaac (Alex Doan) and Jimmy (Edric Zeng), as they take a road trip to Durango, Colorado. Shared hours in a small space brings out the father’s motivation for the Durango trip, and why each family member has chosen to go. Like all good road trip stories, the core characters in Durango ultimately discover where their personal destinations lie, or at least the next step along the path. For the tensions and relatability to land in this kind of play, the audience needs to believe and sympathize with the characters. Thanks to excellent direction and acting in the Lee family cast, they do.
When it comes to supporting the revelation of family dynamics in Durango, Melissa Chen’s (‘18) set design hits and misses. Some choices, like the office scene between Mr. Lee and Jerry, pose unnecessary questions for the audience that create a distraction from the storyline moving forward. In a few of the slower, choppier scene transitions, we are mulling over the specifics of the previous scene rather than anticipating the next. However, most of the minimalist set imagines exactly what the audience needs to know without confusion. For example, the car made of a kitchen table, two chairs, and a steering wheel is a dynamic representation of being in a car. Add Anna Zeng’s (‘18) sound design, which continually sets the proper mood of the scenes, and the audience feels the exhaustion of a long trip and the stress of a near-collision.
Jarku Tang Virtanen’s (‘18) lighting design, notably the motel sign and abstract pool projected onto the ceiling, mirror the powerful minimalism of the set. These production strengths build the foundation for the actors to shine. AJ Dennis and Nate Randall exhibit versatility, especially in Randall’s portrayal of the well-meaning, slightly racist Ned. The performances of the Lee family stand out especially, after some warming up. It isn’t so much that Doan and Lee’s respective performances start out shaky, as I first thought, but rather that the audience is uneasy; we don’t know where the characters are going. Isaac starts the show with a guitar song, and it is unclear whether he writing or performing. Jimmy plays as very young, as Lee continually inflects the end of his sentences. Despite the initial awkwardness of these acting choices, which leave the audience worried that these are stiff, unrelatable characters, they turn out to build the foundation of very real, dynamic characters who unfold believably as the play progresses. Perhaps their initial awkwardness indicates the facades interpersonal discomfort within the family that can only be broken down in the cramped, angry space of their car.
As Mr. Lee, Tian establishes the foundation of familial tension and is an acting force from the get-go. His interpretation of the strict, quiet father borders on stereotypical but ends up complex and sympathetic. Tian, Doan, and Zeng create a family that is funny, multi-faceted, unexpected, difficult, and real. This is what makes Durango stand out as a production. It may be filled with some heavy themes–death, racism, immigration, homosexuality, familial fragmentation. But it is not about these things; it is about the small moments, hard-hitting phrases, and expressions of emotion that break and build families. (And these are the moments that we all recognize in our own families, as we anticipate the coming holiday.) There are no easy personalities, problems, or solutions in Durango, but that is what makes it important to see.
Images courtesy of Frank Chen