Celestial Kingdom. Leah Nanako Winkler’s play, God Said This, a Primary Stages production at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is about a family standing just behind the veil at the entrance to – what is it, really? Beyond? All these characters are confronting their capacity for love and their own worthiness while their matriarch Masako (Ako) hangs on to life in a body heavy with chemotherapy.
My fingers are poised now over this keyboard and I am trying to compose a series of words to get you, Dear Reader, to understand that I witnessed a miracle last night. You don’t get the perfect blend often in New York theatre performances. It’s not fair to expect it. But when you do get it, it is exhilarating. This is it. I imagine Morgan Gould doing an end zone dance when she realized she was going to direct a fantastic script with a dream cast. Winkler’s writing goes deep into the real. Families on a good day are a mess of souls trying to relate to each other over different interpretations of history kept secret. On a bad day, Masako’s daughters, Hiro (Satomi Blair) and Sophie (Emma Kikue), open the box on what traumatized them growing up. Raw memories emerge of alcoholic rages followed by grovelling apologies for imaginary transgressions. Hey, that was not fair, not healthy, but we thought that was normal. What do you do with all that anger when you still love these people? How do we forgive them when the behavior changes, but the apology never comes? Who’s turn is it to be with our ravaged mother because we cannot all be in the room together?
Ako gives us Mama Masako in excruciating pain as she battles the family invader, cancer. Her spirit is fully intact. She smiles, she makes us laugh and she does not filter her prickly truths – she wants to protect her family, she is glad her cancer has brought them together and she would really like to poop! We still see the optimistic smiling young immigrant from Japan who met James (Jay Patterson) many years ago in California and followed him back to Kentucky as his bride. Patterson gives us a man who is stunned that he should still be alive after drinking enough to kill every horse in the derby. He is completely heartbroken that his wife is suffering so unfairly. James presents himself to others as just a simple man who will tickle you with his routine daily concerns now that he no longer fogs his life with booze, but Patterson has layered this character long and deep with inner secrets that will pull your heart out and press it right into the gritty theatre floor until you think you will be the one to openly sob in the dark room full of softly sniffling strangers. That was me opening my purse quietly, pulling out three tissues and handing the pack to my date as she tightly wrapped her fingers around mine.
I love this family. I want them to make it. I want them to embrace each other. I want Sophie to stop hiding behind biblical platitudes and Hiro to stop being such a narcissist. I want to know why James and Masako fell for one another. And through unexpected laughter sprinkled over hot tears this story really gratifies. Kikue takes the character of Sophie who could have been so one-note and gives a performance that reminds us why we think humans as well as multi-faceted jewels come from God. Blair’s Hiro is that friend you drop everything for when she comes to town who drives you crazy with her self-analysis, but who tells the truth no matter what and that’s why you love her. Hiro’s relationship with John (Tom Coiner) is often the comic relief in this play, but Winkler does not rest her pen there. John is the flawed “good guy.” The guy you never thought you could count on who shows up when you need someone to keep you sane and surprises you with useful wisdom. Coiner is – yeah, I’m gonna say it – sublime. Gould must have said, Run with it, Kid; and he absolutely did.
You can’t, you can’t, you can’t miss this show. Really. I’m not kidding. This is gold I’m giving you here. There are more women in the cast than men; we examine life, death and consequences in a deeply satisfying way; we look at racism and classicism as well as the crazy American economy since the elimination of the gold standard. The gold is here. Go get you some. Go see God Said This!
(Photo by James Leynse)
"This Primary Stages production, directed to emphasize the extremes by Morgan Gould, feels like watching the action at a bumper car rink: an endless cycle of collision and regrouping, with pieces of plot hurtling at the characters from every direction. Did I mention the car accident? The bike accident? The petty theft and malfunctioning ovaries? Young playwrights — Ms. Nanako Winkler is 33 — often try to show us everything they can do, but I am more impressed by everything they know."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Although God Said This grapples with compelling themes of forgiveness, redemption, loneliness and legacy, the narrative isn't particularly cohesive or convincing. While parts of the play are insightful and entertaining—such as James's hilariously raw AA speeches and the profanity-filled hangout sessions between Hiro and John (a very droll Tom Coiner), a businessman and dad who shatters redneck stereotypes—other scenes are tainted with bathos, especially as the story winds to its obvious, albeit moving, conclusion. Winkler brings a singular voice and important perspective to the stage, but her Hiro’s journey wanders all over the dramaturgical map."
Raven Snook for Time Out New York