For Hiro (Satomi Blair) “Kentucky” is the antonym of “home”. Upon arriving to her home state, or the state where she was born as she would prefer one referred to it, she spends about half the time reminding people her “home” is in New York City. That her mother Masako (Ako) is one of the people she utters this to, can’t help but feel a little like a punch in the gut, but Hiro has become so distanced from this place, that she even seems to have forgotten people there have any feelings.
True, she carries a personal history of pain after years of abuse from her violent father James (Jay Patterson), but she has built for herself a fiery shield that obliterates everything and everyone in her path. This is one of the many things Leah Nanako Winkler’s sublime Kentucky, presented by EST/Radio Drama Network and Page 73, gets so right; she sees and values Hiro’s pain but she doesn’t reduce the characters around her to mere chess pieces waiting to be moved around to help Hiro’s game. In fact one of the recurring motifs in the play is the use of very moving monologues in which almost every character gets a chance to tell us something about themselves, in direct relation to their place in Hiro’s life. One wonders if Ms. Winkler wrote plays about each of the characters, and more than that, will we get to see them?
Hiro has arrived in Kentucky with a plan: she must rescue her newborn Christian younger sister Sophie (Sasha Diamond) from marrying a man she “just” met. Perhaps she will also be able to rescue her mom from her horrible marriage. Without reducing Hiro’s mission to rom-com clichés, Ms. Winkler makes a case for how the person who needs the most rescuing is precisely Hiro herself.
She has become “one of those” New Yorkers who keeps her therapist (a delightful Curran Connor) on speed dial, chugs down anxiety meds like candy, and thinks bedding her high school class’ jock (Alex Grubbs) will be a great story, or perhaps a way to make up for things she missed out in her teenage years. Through most of the play, Hiro runs around trying to wake up everyone from a daze she’s convinced they’re in, never stopping to ask if they need her help. As played by the charming Blair, Hiro is a woman who believes that by externalizing her anger she is being mature. It’s heartbreaking to see Hiro flash by disregarding others, but it’s even more heartbreaking to think about the deep pain she must be carrying to act this way. And Blair plays victim and victimizer with effortlessness and grace.
Ms. Winkler’s play is filled with musical numbers (although a spoken version of “My Old Kentucky Home” is more haunting than any of the lovely melodies she uses), absurdity (Hiro’s family pet is a scene-stealer) and an awkwardness that sometimes hits so close to home, one wants to look away. Ms. Winkler proves to be a master at combining genres that would feel disjointed if used by lesser writers, she is a keen observer of human nature who captures violence, pain and sorrow with honesty, but can’t help but offer us a glimpse of empathy and endless wonder. If by the end of the play, Hiro is still feeling out of place, it’s clear that Ms. Winkler has found her home, and one hopes she’ll stick around for a very long time.