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BWW Reviews: Kimber Lee's DIFFERENT WORDS FOR THE SAME THING Reverberates at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

different words for the same thing/by Kimber Lee/directed by Neel Keller/Kirk Douglas Theatre/through June 1

Think Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Move the action ahead a century or so, adding Asian Americans and Mexican-Americans to the Anglo-Saxon mix and you come out with a very contemporary perspective of a small American town in Kimber Lee's different words for the same thing, beautifully staged by director Neel Keller. In fact, the entire staging with set pieces moved or carried on and off by the 12-member cast to make the houses, stores, school playground, church, cemetery and other interiors/exteriors of the Idaho town come to life in the vast space is what first brought Our Town to mind. I could see/feel the big picture before getting into the smaller ones. These are highly personal scenarios, some quiet/passive, others volatile. Some scenes are practically blackouts with little or no dialogue... but the all-encompassing thread keeping them connected bristles with furrows of emotional tension. Very cinematic! The effect is overwhelming, almost like divine intervention. Now onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through June 1, this world-premiere play cries out to be experienced.

different words for the same thing not only has a thread of awkwardness running through it but is also very mysterious, as one character pops in and out. Maddy (Devin Kelley) walks about disoriented; her story never becomes completely clear until play's end when all the characters are onstage together, thanks to Maddy's sister Alice (Jackie Chung). Henry (Sam Anderson) and Marta (Alyson Reed) are Maddy's and Alice's parents. Alice, of Korean descent, was lovingly adopted, particularly by Henry. When the play opens, Maddy has died and Marta's relationships with Alice, her grand-daughter Sylvie (Savannah Lathem) and especially Maddy's husband Angel (Hector Atreyu Ruiz) are strained at best. Angel's family and restaurant are on the north side of the tracks and those die-hard Christian citizens from the south side, go out of their way to avoid them. Sylvie is in love with Frankie (Erick Lopez) and Mike (Malcolm Madera), a donut shop owner, has always cared for Alice... but in silence. With these mixed racial attractions come the hypocritical and hurtful remarks from the likes of former nurse Dottie (Monica Horan), who pretends to care dearly for their well-being. On the comedic side there's funeral director Oren (Stephen Ellis) who adores choir singer Donna Ruth (Rebecca Larsen) but is afraid to tell her. He's awkward and she's nervous, not being able to swallow her donut in his presence. Enter Father Joe (Jose Zuniga), a priest no less, to convince Oren and Mike that life is too short and they must step up and go for broke... or lose out.

Kimber Lee is a remarkable writer who nails each character with only a few phrases or words, regardless of language. These words are stunningly real and evocative. Each scene has a texture and intent that shows loneliness or uneasiness, making everyone regardless of race or background...the same. So moving is Henry's short monologue about adopting Alice as he fixes a water faucet. We feel his thoughtfulness and resignation to his wife's despair. Or Marta's predicament with facing chemotherapy and accepting Maddy's death as she plays the organ alone in church. Lee is a genius in allowing her audience to see and feel the in-depth turmoil that beleaguers one and all.

Guided by Neel Keller's beautiful staging and perfect pacing, the cast are top-notch, in true ensemble fashion. Anderson, Reed, Ruiz, and Chung really bring out the strength and reliability of these basic souls. There is no finer character work than from Horan, Ellis, Larsen, Madera, Lopez, Lathem, and Zuniga in their razor sharp depictions. Devin Kelley stands apart as the mystery girl Maddy. She adds finesse and a distinct presence to Maddy's sorrow, making us truly care.

Sarah Krainin's scenic design is perfectly suited to the expansive message of the piece.

different words for the same thing is a brilliant work that should not be missed. The final scene of attempted unity and partial resolution is compassionate and resoundingly memorable.

(photo credit: Craig Schwartz)

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