By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Family is the one constant in life, a common link between disparate societies and cultures, making stories about family relatable to everyone.
So it’s good to announce that “Kim’s Convenience,” playwright Ins Choi’s personal story about family, is now getting its California premiere at Laguna Playhouse.
Choi based the 2011 play not just on his own life but also on those of many other Koreans who had emigrated to Canada – specifically, 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 might expect, is where most of the action in the play takes place.
Much of the play depicts the couple’s relationships with their two children, so Choi refers to Mr. and Mrs. Kim as “Appa” and “Umma,” Korean for dad and mom.
Off the bat, we see Appa’s interactions with daughter Janet (Susane Lee), who he wants to turn the store over to once he retires.
Janet, though, loves her work as a professional photographer, and has no desire to take over the store – so Mr. Kim 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 with the young man since he left home.
The fifth cast member is Clinton Lowe, who plays Alex, a buddy of Jung’s since they were kids. He’s now a cop who maintains close ties to the neighborhood. His connection to the Kim family? He’s attracted to Janet – yet too shy to make a move.
That’s the bulk of “Kim’s Convenience,” which is best described as a character study in the guise of a sitcom – yet the play is leaps and bounds ahead of any TV or stage sitcom.
Jon Lawrence Rivera’s outstanding cast fully realizes Choi’s theatrical blueprint – and Laguna’s production, and Rivera’s direction, capitalize on the script’s considerable strengths.
“Kim’s Convenience” is one of the best Orange County play productions of 2022, and the best show Laguna Playhouse has produced since reopening last fall.
Most sitcoms would take a single story thread and beat it into the ground – for example, early in the play, the wealthy Mr. Lee (played by Lowe) visits the store and tells Mr. Kim he’s interested in buying the store.
Choi deftly captures the sounds and rhythms of casual, everyday speech and conversation, and has a perceptive eye for family relations and interactions between parents and children and among siblings.
The play abounds in distinctive touches that have put Choi on the road to theater greatness – including a fascinating “Korean history test” Appa uses to test his son’s knowledge of key accomplishments by Koreans throughout the world’s history, with specific years (eg. 1592, 1966, 1984) as the only clues.
Choi even gives us what may be the first depiction of a non-firearm “shotgun” wedding proposal – an uproarious scene where Appa literally twists Janet’s and Alex’s arms that’s followed by Janet getting her dad in an armlock. These few moments prove that something can be achingly funny yet also warm.
Laguna Playhouse’s production overflows with riches: Rivera’s touch is light and playful, yet he doesn’t negate the serious moments that undergird each of the play’s scenes. Choi’s text provides the company a solid foundation. The staging also showcases the Playhouse’s characteristic production values – You-Shin Chen’s fantastic set design, Jojo Siu’s costumes, Wesley Charles Siu Muen Chew’s lighting, Ian Scot’s sound design and Lily Bartenstein’s projection work.
The top-notch production brims with fine, memorable performances that capture the joy and sadness of their characters, starting with Yong Kim, whose marvelous comic timing drives his portrayal of Mr. Kim. As Mrs. Kim, Song provides the emotional impetus that informs the couple’s interactions.
Susane Lee paints Janet as far more than just a stereotypical first-generation Korean-Canadian whose heart is with her Korean parents but whose mind and aspirations are like those of her Canadian peers.
Many an actor might imbue a cop with bravado and superficial machismo. Instead, Lowe delivers sensitive work and shows the role of Alex to be more nuanced – and that’s welcome and refreshing.
The talented actor also delivers memorable moments in three walk-on roles, shining as a sassy young black who loves to tease Mr. Kim about his Korean accent, a Jamaican customer 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 scrapes by working at a discount rental car 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 mom, a testament to Lee’s skill as he plumbs Jung’s emotional depths.
Set designer Chen has re-created a convenience store that’s incredibly realistic, with a front counter decked out with cash register and various trinkets for sale and surrounded by shelves of product; rows of canned food, snacks, candy and assorted useful items; and refrigerator and freezer sections that appear functional.
Completing the satisfying effect are 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 the scenes with Umma and Jung).
Skip seeing “Kim’s Convenience” at Laguna Playhouse and you’ll feel the same regret as not having bought a lottery ticket at the nearby 7-11 – and then finding that it sold the winning ticket. This is a winning theater ticket you’ll want to grab hold of.
Moulton Theatre, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Drive, Laguna Beach. Through October 9. Running time: One hour, 20 minutes (no intermission). Tickets: $50 to $75. Ticket purchase/information: 949-497-2787, lagunaplayhouse.org.