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Kim's Convenience

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - July 5, 2017

Rosie Simon, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Ronnie Rowe Jr.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

As things stand in the U. S. right now, the primary focus on immigrants seems to be on keeping them out of the country altogether. But in Canada, the land of Come From Away, the welcome mat is still rolled out, and immigrant-centric plays like Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience, which opened tonight as part of the Soulpepper on 42nd Street festival at the Pershing Square Signature Center, are embraced almost as national treasures.

Kim's Convenience, about a Korean-owned neighborhood convenience store in Toronto, is a blend of comedy, a study on family dynamics, and a depiction of cultural and generational clashes within a gentrifying neighborhood. That's a lot for an 80-minute show to carry, and the play, while largely grounded in honest realism, does slip into sit-com shortcuts, including a pat, albeit touching, ending that could perhaps be better earned after a longer and deeper examination of the family at its center.

The undisputed head of the family is "Appa" (a Korean honorific for "Father") Kim, who has settled into a life running his store and (with less success) running his more assimilated children. As perfectly embodied by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Mr. Kim is a conglomeration of determination, stubbornness, and frustration, all of which the play couches in humor, so that Mr. Kim comes off as a sort of Korean Archie Bunker.

Appa Kim takes great pride in being a valuable asset to the community, but, like Archie, he is not above making racist comments about his customers, as when he carefully explains to his daughter his take on who is most likely to be a shoplifter. He also has a short fuse when it comes to his dealings with his children: daughter Janet (Rosie Simon), who still lives at home at the age of 30, and his estranged son Jung, who left years before, at 16, after a bitter fight between them that put the teenager in the hospital for a few days.

Since he no longer talks to his son, Mr. Kim employs increasingly sharp demands and shaming tactics aimed at getting Janet to take over the store (which he sees as his legacy) so that he can retire. Both are quite stubborn about this, and yet there is clearly a great deal of affection between them, even if it takes a bit of Korean martial arts on Janet's part to get him to eventually admit this.

The other member of the Kim family is "Umma" ("Mother") Kim (the excellent Jean Yoon, who makes the most out an underwritten part). Umma has shaped her life out of a philosophy of live-and-let-live. She goes about her business, ignoring the noise of arguing around her, and spends a lot of time at church, where, we learn, she has been quietly meeting up with Jung (Ins Choi, the playwright) for all these years. The cast is rounded out by Ronnie Rowe Jr, who masterfully plays four different and distinct roles as outsiders who interact with Mr. Kim and with Janet.

It is clear throughout that the playwright, while wanting to be honest about Mr. Kim's dark side, is very fond of him, so that many of the potentially explosive moments are handled with jokes and punch lines. The ending, too, brings a conclusion that all of the family members, and, undoubtedly the audience as well, can find heart-warming satisfaction in, even if there is too much of a "happily ever after" to it. Maybe it makes sense that the show has been adapted into a television series, for that will allow the characters to develop more fully over time. For now, however, think of Kim's Convenience as you might a successful first date, intriguing enough to leave you wanting to know more about this family, and, especially, about the complicated man behind the counter.

Kim's Convenience
Through July 15
The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Soulpepper

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