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Mia Katigbak and Will Marchetti
in The Architecure of Loss
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Julia Cho wasn't kidding when she chose The Architecture of Loss as the title of her new play about a fractured Arizona family. Accounts of what the work's four focal characters have lost -- and have lost out on -- fill the stage like the simulation of southwestern summer sun that lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger beams unsparingly down. Loss implies absence, of course, and that's also strongly implied by the set that Riccardo Hernandez has economically constructed: a floor of sand on which a white table and two white chairs, initially seen resting on their sides, sit forlornly.

The list of losses that Cho's characters have experienced is seemingly endless and is itemized almost from the instant they begin appearing. Greg (Victor Slezak), who left his family 14 years earlier, returns to mend the long-running rift with his wife, Catherine (Mia Katigbak), whose American father, Richard (Will Marchetti), is now living with her and whose Korean mother is deceased. Immediately, Greg learns that his and Catherine's son, David, has been missing for eight years; he also becomes increasingly aware that Richard has lost some of his mental marbles after losing his house at the gambling tables. Although daughter Carmie (Angel Desai) still appears to be residing at home while working locally as a tour guide, she has had an affair with a teacher (Matthew Saldivar) -- an affair that ended when he returned to his wife.

Cho's method of revealing these dolorous deprivations is often to have them played out while the character being brought up to date sits in silent observation. Through this process, Greg also recounts an episode from the years when he was gone that involves his picking up a hitchhiker (Jason Lew) and running into subsequent trouble that haunts him still. At other times, the characters pair off for Chekhovian one-on-one sequences in which they discuss what they no longer possess as they wait for the monsoon season to commence and alleviate the oppressive heat that's stifling them.

The cruel languor that dominates Cho's drama is apparently something she knows about. She was raised under that Arizona sun and observed the lives lived by Korean women brought to America by American war veterans. The compassion she feels for her characters has a hint of the autobiography about it. Perhaps she grew up in a family where an American father and mother with a Korean background never made all the pieces of their marriage fit? If so, there's additional bravery in her threading family darkness into the play's fabric. So it's not a particular pleasure to report that, although there are many moments when Cho's concerns are expressed movingly, the unrelievedly grim stories she tells in The Architecture of Loss become as onerous as the inert Arizona air. The play's pluses and minuses are suggested in the title, which is at once poetic and ever so slightly pretentious.

Cho seems to be putting the materials of her play under excessive stress. From her first entrance, Catherine is understandably depressed, and her somber mood never shifts. She can't even accept compliments: When Greg comments that he likes her coffee, she replies without affect, "It's Folger's." (That remark is about the closest thing to a joke in the play.) Catherine and Carmie, who is reeling from romantic rejection, are invested by Cho with backbone, while Richard and Greg have been rendered ineffective by their despair; they're lost rather than at a loss. Richard has begun to imagine that Catherine is actually her late mother, Nora. The rootless Greg explains that he left the family because he couldn't continue watching daughter Carmie's dismay at his alcoholic behavior; "Rather than hurt her, I left," he says.

Angel Desai and Matthew Saldivar
in The Architecture of Loss
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
In this stage flatland, everything is flat, downbeat. The symbols alone become a drag on the action, and they're abundant. There's the long-awaited rainy season that sound designer Jill B.C. Du Boff eventually does something about. The hitchhiker is possibly a stand-in for the missing David; what happens to him, as revealed by Greg, is something that might have happened to David, Catherine seems to be thinking. At one point, Greg brings on a Lego house David built when he was a child. "I thought it was broken," Greg says to Catherine, and she responds: "It was. We put it back together again, me and Dad."

Some things that crop up in the play seem to be symbols but are obscure. In a scene Carmie plays with her teacher-lover, he has written a few words on a blackboard: philtre, recondite, febrile, and fulminate. Though Cho's play might be described as recondite and febrile and though a character or two come close to fulminating, "philtre" remains an elusive reference. The question lingers: Why those four words and not four others? The teacher may be attempting to communicate a message to Carmie but, if so, it doesn't transmit.

Although the Arizona atmosphere is radiant with sun, the sense of desolation is never brightened by director Chay Yew, who sees to it that the cast members do their requisite moping with as much restraint as possible. Wearing costume designer Linda Cho's muted, coordinated-with-the-set costumes, they're pretty good at not overplaying what has been so calculatedly written. Mia Katigbak's intelligently acted Catherine is a heavy presence and yet sympathetic; this is a woman born to accept bad breaks with resigned grace.

Victor Slezak handles Greg's hard luck with sensitivity, and when he has to give in to the mounting guilt he's felt over time, his histrionics are exactly right. Will Marchetti hews to the examples set by the others, keeping Richard's madness small and all the more touching for it. As Carmie, Angel Desai conveys the pain of first heartbreak -- or second heartbreak, since she's never gotten over her father's desertion. In other roles, Matthew Saldivar, Eric Wippo, and Jason Lew contribute to the commendable ensemble work.

One of the issues with which Cho deals in this play is the plight of war brides and the ripple effect that wartime marriages can have. It's something that needs to be examined but, in The Architecture of Loss, Julia Cho demonstrates that the potential exists to take even the most serious problems too seriously.

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