James Rose is a survivor and his voice has a bitter edge to go with his distinct twang when he introduces himself in the first moments of “God Said This,” a new play by Lexington native Leah Nanako Winkler. The play recently opened in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays.
Sources of his resentment include the ailments that have struck his family — primarily the cancer his wife Masako now battles and, in some ways, his liver failure, which went into remission after he quit drinking.
That’s why he’s in Alcoholics Anonymous now, and it is at a meeting where he is describing his daughters, including one who is devoutly Christian and talks about “JEE – Susss.” That’s how James prominently articulates the name before he goes on to talk about his eldest daughter who he says hates him.
Winkler’s play, set in Lexington, is the story of a family fulfilling a schedule to be at the hospital bedside of the family matriarch, as she is undergoing chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer. At the same time, they all are dealing with the stressful uncertainty of her outcome and the turbulent family past.
This story has ingredients contained within many Hallmark movie family dramas, but it mixes in familiarities local audiences will recognize — from references to basketball and horses to naming specific places in Lexington.
From his first monologue, actor Jay Patterson as James captivates with his impressive performance as a recovering alcoholic in this family of women. James struggles to connect with those he loves and those he has wronged. But he also knows he can’t change the past.
James can only be who he is, which is only part of what this story beautifully reveals. In his sobriety, James loves singing Karaoke at a bar (but doesn’t drink there), has become an avid rock collector, and is very involved in several Facebook groups, as he is devoted to his smartphone (but hates computers).
James continues these pursuits while the family focuses on Masako (Ako) in the hospital. The conscientious Sophie (Emma Kikue) prays with her mother and is ever mindful of the schedule. The eldest. Hiro (Satomi Blair), who’s in from New York, is doing what she can to divert her mind from reality. That includes spending time smoking pot with John (Tom Coiner), a high school acquaintance she has reconnected with in Lexington.
Winkler has written rich characters with dialogue that has an unpretentious familiarity to it coupled with undercurrents of complex wrought emotion.
James and Hiro are the most tortured, dealing with substance abuse or its temptation, and their regular use of vulgar language seems to reflect that struggle.
While there is no large moment of epiphany here — just life as it is with death as a part of the story or the cycle — Winkler provides fissures in the austere roles each family member has cast for himself or herself. Those fissures allow them to become open and learn more about each other.
This is particularly true for the two sisters. Through a series of letdowns and accidents, anger and frustration, words fly and new understandings of past traumas come to light. In the end, it’s not rocket science but just newfound interpretation of love, given that James knows only a few ways to show his love.
Director Morgan Gould has a solid cast to carry out Winkler’s script to full dimension, although, Coiner’s John often has the air of a college performer rather than a man in his 30s.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s sparse scenic design for the hospital scene coupled with the fluorescent lighting fixtures plays in the openness of the Bingham Theatre. But the scenes with Hiro and John in the car are awkward as they often are sitting in brightly colored hospital waiting room seating with only a steering wheel set piece to indicate the automobile. (M.L. Dogg’s sound design helped to add to the ambiance where the chairs where distracting.)
While the play is not about addiction, its timing is particularly thought-provoking as it premieres when Kentucky is dealing with all kinds of addiction issues, and during a month when a Center for Disease Control report listed the state among the top four where binge drinkers consumed the most alcohol.
The production of Leah Nanako Winkler’s “God Said This” as part of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays continues through April 8 with performances in the Bingham Theatre at Actors Theatre of Louisville, 316 W. Main St. For more information, visit actorstheatre.org.