different words for the same thing

This world premiere by Kimber Lee investigates the boundaries of communication.

Alyson Reed and Sam Anderson in Kimber Lee's different words for the same thing, directed by Neel Keller at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
Alyson Reed and Sam Anderson in Kimber Lee's different words for the same thing, directed by Neel Keller, at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.
(© Craig Schwartz)

Individuals deliver speeches entirely in Spanish. A character spends easily two minutes lost in the rapture of the organ she is playing in an empty church. And a pair of teenagers who had previously been feuding make things up as they prepare a table for a family meal. This is accomplished without a single word being passed between them.

Welcome to the sometimes quiet, sometimes symphonic, always sympathetic landscape of playwright Kimber Lee whose different words for the same thing is having an elegant world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. None of the aforementioned miniature interludes are radical, but Lee is examining the boundaries and possibilities of communication — character to character and character to audience. The play establishes Lee as a playwright very much in control of both language and silence. Aided by Neel Keller's sensitive direction and the impressive work of a 12-person cast, different words is a harmonic convergence.

A phone call brings prodigal daughter Alice (played by Jackie Chung) back to Nampa, Idaho (population about 81,500), for the first time in more than a decade. Her mother, Marta (played with nice salt-of-the-earth honesty by Alyson Reed), will be undergoing treatment for cancer, meaning her father, Henry (Sam Anderson), will need help around the house. Alice's 14-year-old niece, Sylvie (Savannah Lathem), is moving into some thorny teenage terrain, and Sylvie's widowed father, Angel (Hector Atreyu Ruiz), who runs a Mexican restaurant, is doing his best to keep pace. Sylvie is sweet on Frankie (Erick Lopez), who works in Angel's restaurant, and vice versa. Choirmaster Dottie (Monica Horan) considers herself a mother figure to Sylvie, but Dottie is a busybody who would probably mother quite a few good Christian people of Nampa if they would let her.

Although his late wife's mother tongue was English, when Ruiz's Angel visits her grave he speaks to her in Spanish, updating her on the goings-on in Sylvie's life in a moving and completely comprehensible speech. As they vault on a swing set and cut loose to "Cielito Lindo," Lathem's Sylvie and Lopez's Frankie are straddling a line between innocence and adulthood. Naturally, the swing-sing is observed, which leads to complications.

And on it goes. Undertaker Oren (Stephen Ellis) is nursing a not-very-secret crush on his fellow parishioner Donna Ruth (Rebecca Larsen) to the point that he gives up his long-running gig playing Jesus in the town's Easter pageant (Oren is apparently so convincing in the role that it affects his personal life). Matters of the heart — and, yes, the stomach — often play out in the doughnut shop run by Mike (Malcolm Madera), whose business is a community hub reminiscent of the soda fountain of Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

That resemblance can't be accidental. With bits of scenery (a kitchen bay, a swing set, a pharmacy shelf) wheeled on and off the expansive bare stage (designed by Saran Krainin), Keller and lighting designer Geoff Korf evoke a small-town American tableau that Wilder and Edgar Lee Masters would have recognized. Present-day Nampa, Idaho, with its social and racial divides (certain characters are literally from "the wrong side of the tracks") isn't quite Grover's Corners, but the fabric of community is certainly strong.

Though the play contains 12 distinct characters and a few story lines to keep track of, different words is a tapestry, not a crazy quilt, and Lee ensures that we always know what's going on. Those marvelous interludes help greatly in this regard.

Admittedly, there are a few rough edges. Some important backstory data is left unexplained, and the playwright introduces an 11th-hour logic-defying meeting that throws into question whether these events are actually taking place or whether we're watching a fantasy cooked up by Alice to make her family — and her community — whole. Regardless, that dream encounter between sisters will break your heart.

Lee isn't taking sides. Her play contains no bad people, only questionable choices that — regardless of the words, language, or key — are beautifully and recognizably human.