February 9, 2019

"God Said This" is Quietly Eloquent

The only thing I didn’t like about Leah Nanako Winkler’s play God Said This is its all-purpose title which seems too generic for this simultaneously very specific and totally universal drama about a fractured family struggling to come together as its matriarch battles cancer.

The daughter of a Japanese mother and a white father, the play’s protagonist Hiro grew up in Kentucky but has made a life in New York City where she has distanced herself from a troubled childhood that included the alcoholism of her father, the acquiescence to domestic abuse by her mother and her younger sister's attempt to find refuge from it all in an early marriage and her evangelical faith. All these circumstances collide when her mother's worsening condition causes Hiro to return home.

Granted all this is the stuff from which Lifetime movies get made but Winkler, herself a transplanted southerner and the daughter of interracial parents (click here to read more about her), wrote the play during her own mother’s chemotherapy sessions and it pulses with an authenticity and a generosity of spirit steeped in that lived experience. 

And although laced with wry humor, God Said This also dares to ponder serious questions about what it means to live a good life or to have a good death. In the process, the play admirably manages to sidestep every conventional trope it encounters.

The white guy from high school that Hiro hooks up with during her visit home isn’t a good-ole-boy redneck. Sophie’s born-again faith isn’t ridiculed. And the women’s ethnicity isn’t the determining factor in their identity. What we get instead is just recognizable people who, like all of us, are just doing what they can to play the cards life has dealt them.

The result isn’t the kind of genre-pushing play that gets critics cheering (only a half dozen middling reviews can be found on the aggregation site Show Score) but God Said This is a fresh riff on an old standard and it's easy to see why it won last year’s Yale Prize for Drama, awarded annually to an emerging playwright (check here to read about that).

This Primary Stages production directed by Morgan Gould offers a lovely showcase for the play, filled with entertaining performances, especially from Tom Coiner as the high school friend and Ako as the mother. It’s running at the Cherry Lane Theater only through Feb. 15 17 but if you can, you should see it.

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