By Eric Marchese | NB Indy Special
Family is the only constant in life, a common bond between disparate societies and cultures, making family stories accessible to all.
So it’s good to announce that “Kim’s Convenience,” playwright Ins Choi’s personal story about family, is now making its California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse.
Choi based the 2011 play not only on his own life, but also on that of many other Koreans who had emigrated to Canada, particularly Toronto.
Choi’s father worked at Kim’s Grocer, Choi’s uncle’s convenience store, and Choi himself had an after-school job at a convenience store owned by friends of his parents.
The play’s success also led to “Kim’s Convenience,” a Canadian television series that ran for five years.
Mr. Kim (Yong Kim) and his wife (Janet Song) run Kim’s Convenience, a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighborhood. The store, as you’d expect, is where most of the action in the play takes place.
Much of the play depicts the couple’s relationship with their two children, so Choi refers to Mr. and Mrs. Kim as “Appa” and “Umma,” Korean for mom and dad.
Right off the bat, we see Appa’s interactions with his daughter Janet (Susane Lee), who he wants to hand over the store to once he retires.
Janet, however, loves her job as a professional photographer and has no desire to take over the store. Mr. Kim therefore has few options, as his eldest son Jung (Gavin Kawin Lee) is estranged from the family. Unbeknownst to Mr. Kim, Umma has been secretly meeting the young man since he left home.
The fifth actor is Clinton Lowe, who plays Alex, Jung’s pal since they were kids. He’s now a cop with strong ties to the neighborhood. His link with the Kim family? He’s attracted to Janet – but too shy to budge.
That’s the gist of “Kim’s Convenience,” which is best described as a character study in sitcom guise — yet the play is a step ahead of any TV or stage sitcom.
Jon Lawrence Rivera’s exceptional cast fully realizes Choi’s theatrical plan – and Laguna’s production, as well as Rivera’s direction, capitalizes on the script’s considerable strengths.
“Kim’s Convenience” is one of Orange County’s best play productions of 2022, and the best show Laguna Playhouse has produced since it reopened last fall.
Most sitcoms would take a single story thread and beat it into the ground – for example, at the start of the play, the wealthy Mr. Lee (played by Lowe) visits the store and tells Mr. Kim that he is interested in buying from the store.
Choi skillfully captures the sounds and rhythms of everyday, casual speech and conversation, and has a keen eye for family relationships and parent-child and sibling interactions.
The play is packed with distinctive touches that set Choi on the path to theatrical greatness – including a fascinating “Korean history quiz” that Appa uses to test his son’s knowledge of key accomplishments of Koreans across the world history, with specific years (e.g. 1592, 1966, 1984) as the only clues.
Choi even gives us what might be the first depiction of a non-gun marriage proposal — a thunderous scene where Appa literally twists Janet and Alex’s arms, followed by Janet putting her dad in an armbar. These few moments prove that something can be terribly funny but also warm.
Laguna Playhouse’s production brims with richness: Rivera’s touch is light and playful, but he doesn’t deny the serious moments that underlie each of the play’s scenes. Choi’s text gives the company a solid foundation. The staging also showcases the Playhouse’s signature production values - fantastic set design by You-Shin Chen, costumes by Jojo Siu, lighting by Wesley Charles and Siu Muen Chew, sound design by Ian Scot and the projection work by Lily Bartenstein.
The top-notch production is packed with fine, memorable performances that capture the joy and sadness of their characters, starting with Yong Kim, whose wonderful comedic timing drives his portrayal of Mr. Kim. As Mrs. Kim, Song provides the emotional impulse that informs the couple’s interactions.
Susane Lee portrays Janet as much more than just a stereotypical first-generation Korean-Canadian whose hearts are with her Korean parents, but whose minds and aspirations resemble those of her Canadian peers.
Many actors could imbue a cop with bravado and superficial machismo. Instead, Lowe delivers sensible work and shows that Alex’s role is more nuanced – and that’s welcome and refreshing.
The talented actor also delivers memorable moments in three walking roles, shining as a sassy young black man who enjoys teasing Mr. Kim about his Korean accent, a Jamaican customer whom Mr. Kim stereotypes as a shoplifter, and the well-to-do. . Mr Kim.
A natural leader as a youngster, the Kims’ black sheep son Jung now works at a discount car rental agency, and Gavin Kawin Lee deftly sketches Jung’s feelings of desolation. Jung’s face and voice burn with shame during his visits with his mother, a testament to Lee’s skill as he plumbs Jung’s emotional depths.
Set designer Chen recreated an incredibly realistic convenience store, with a front counter accented with a cash register and various trinkets for sale and surrounded by product shelves; rows of assorted canned foods, snacks, candies and useful items; and fridge and freezer sections that look functional.
Charles and Chew’s flat fluorescent lighting and a black-and-white photo showing the Toronto skyline above and behind the store (replaced by the rooftops and spire of a local church in scenes with Umma and Jung) complete the satisfying effect.
Avoid seeing “Kim’s Convenience” in Laguna and you’ll feel the same regret as not buying a lottery ticket at the nearby 7-11, only to find that it sold the winning ticket. It’s a winning theater ticket you’ll want to grab.
Moulton Theater, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Until October 9. Duration: 1h20 (without intermission). Tickets: $50 to $75. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org.