Julia Cho’s “Aubergine” takes the fancy word for “eggplant” as its title, which tells you a lot about the play. It’s a drama about food, but it’s not tangibly about food. It’s lyrically about food, a poetic work waxing about loss, grief, and how the taste and aroma of given dishes can comfort the afflicted and almost revive the dead.
“Aubergine” is one of several slow-cooking dramas that opened over the weekend as Washington’s second Women’s Voices Theater Festival nears its end; by now only two of this winter’s two dozen shows have yet to open. International characters and historical excavations are strong festival currents, though “Aubergine,” “All She Must Possess” and “No Word in Guyanese for Me” are only eddies.
“All She Must Possess” at Rep Stage takes a local interest in Baltimore’s Etta and Claribel Cone, collectors during the early 20th century of pioneering modern art. Susan McCully’s 75-minute drama is like watching paint dry as she creates a playwright character who frets about how to write the play. Technically, that’s an apt question when dealing with rule-breaking artists, and it lets McCully foreground a quest to uncover hidden sexuality in the works and in the biographies.
The show seems promising as the lights rise on Daniel Ettinger’s art gallery set of empty frames on a gray wall, but then so very little happens. Henri Matisse (Nigel Reed) strides in speaking in manifestos about feeling and expressing, and a panel slides open to reveal Teresa Castracane as a painting talking back. But the art-theory experiment is never so alive as when Grace Bauer, as the likable, tentative Etta, has a tantalizing flirtation with Valerie Leonard’s Gertrude Stein. It’s all talk, but Stein’s pounding repetitive words circulate in a way that illustrates what the play is interested in — the mist of expression and the elusiveness of meaning, and of people.
The story of Hanna in Wendy Graf’s “No Word in Guyanese for Me,” on the other hand, couldn’t be more direct. It’s a solo show in which Ashley K. Nicholas plays Hanna, a Guyanese Muslim who is brought to New York City as a girl. The story flits back and forth and finds its tension as Hanna realizes she’s gay, which of course means she’s ostracized by her faith community. It’s an old story, but Graf gives Hanna a personable voice that Nicholas plays endearingly in the intimate District of Columbia Arts Center.
“Aubergine” at the Olney Theatre Center is an elegiac affair, directed somberly by Vincent M. Lancici of Baltimore’s Everyman Theatre. (This co-production moves to Everyman later in the spring.) Cho uses food as both the bridge and the gulf between a talented young Korean American chef named Ray and his father, a flinty immigrant who never got along with his child.
This father-son heartburn — another old story — is one-sided. The father is dying, getting hospice care at home and almost always asleep. Cho pens monologues, tableau images and realistic exchanges that don’t heat up as a single harmonious dish.
At least it’s a handsomely produced show. Misha Kachman’s understated design has style (kitchen to the side, evocative projections occasionally taking over the view), and the cast is compelling, from Megan Anderson’s opening monologue as a foodie to Tony Nam’s brooding Ray and Song Kim’s wry turn as an uncle who only speaks Korean. But the grief doesn’t run deep because we see so little of the life. It’s like seeing a menu but never getting the food.
Aubergine, by Julia Cho. Directed by Vincent Lancisi. Costumes, Ivania Stack; lights, Harold Burgess II; sound design, Roc Lee, projections, Zachary Borovay. With Eunice Bae, Glenn Kubota and Jefferson A. Russell. About two hours. Through March 4 at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd. Tickets $47-$74. Call 301-924-3400 or visit olneytheatre.org. All She Must Possess, by Susan McCully. Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch. Costumes, Julie A. Potter; lights, Conor Mulligan; sound design, William D’Eugenio; projections, Sarah Tundermann. Through Feb. 25 at Rep Stage, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. Tickets $40. Call 443-518-1500 or visit repstage.org. No Word in Guyanese for Me, by Wendy Graf. Directed by Julia Hurley. Through March 4 at DC Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW. Tickets $35. Visit rainbowtheatreproject.org.