Strained father-son relationships. A family road trip. Brotherly bickering. Fatherly disappointment. Do any of these tropes sound familiar? They should. They perfectly fit the mold of a common American coming-of-age story, so where does the interest in a tale like this lie? In the case of “Durango,” a play written by Julia Cho and presented by the Stanford Asian American Theater Project, the audience’s expectations, or what they think they know about this stereotype, are not merely challenged but shattered by the context of coming-of-age in an Asian-American family that often finds itself boxed in and pressured by cultural barriers.
“Durango,” directed by Vineet Gupta, revolves around the lives of a widowed father and his two sons as they each battle their own demons in a variety of ways. Boo-Seng Lee (Hank Tian ‘20) has gone to incredible lengths to raise the perfect sons: Jimmy (Edric Zeng ‘19) and Isaac (Alex Doan ‘20). Jimmy is the “golden boy”of the family. As an honor student and champion swimmer, he remains his father’s pride and joy. Isaac is on the path to success because of his imminent acceptance to medical school. With a future doctor in the family and an Ivy League’s dream child, how could a father be discontent?
The answer lies in disconnect. This familial disconnect is heavy, palpable and brilliantly played throughout the entire production and manifests itself in a myriad of ways for each character’s relationships with one another. One of the first noticeable, blatant even, sources of this discrepancy lies with the sons’ greatly Americanized accents and Boo-Seng’s lingering Korean one. This automatically creates a barrier between Jimmy and Isaac fully understanding Boo-Seng’s background, decreasing the relatability between the two parties. Another source of disconnect reveals itself through each character’s inability to be truthful not only with one another but even with themselves. While the setting of the show should be idyllic, the picturesque ideal of a content family road trip soon melts away as each character’s story and background unravel.
Zeng captures our hearts as the optimistic, happy-go-lucky peacemaker of the family. As the audience gets to know Jimmy through a focused lens, his shell of cheerfulness and positivism cracks, little by little, as he struggles to confront and come to terms with his own sexuality and the pressures of maintaining a level of success in all aspects of his life. Zeng’s portrayal of Jimmy caused the audience to be active; we actively wanted him to succeed, whether that means keeping the peace in a disintegrating family environment or finding his own path to doing what he wants to do rather than what he is expected to do.
Whilst Zeng wins our empathy through innocence, Doan does so through humor. As the eldest son, Isaac adopts a level of superiority marked by wit and sarcasm peppered throughout almost every one of his thoughts. However, as the eldest son in an Asian-American family, the thought of failure lurks and broods in the back of his mind, bubbling forth in confrontations with his father. Isaac is inhibited by his low self-esteem, and Doan’s self-deprecation somehow does not push his audience away but rather draws us in by garnering our sympathy.
Boo-Seng is perhaps the most heartbreaking character in the show. We watch as he tries desperately to break free from the variety of boxes he is placed in: judgement from his co-workers, broken ties between his sons and lingering memories of his deceased wife, just to name a few. His bold decision to pick up everything and embark on the road trip is unsurprising given his desire to break free. Tian manages to appeal to the full spectrum of our emotions. At times, we are frustrated with Boo-Seng and his adoption of overly-strict parental tactics, at times we are saddened by world’s misunderstanding of his intentions, but we are most often compassionate toward his main goal: the accomplishment of a positive legacy before he dies.
In terms of production, the show is characterized by simplicity, allowing the acting choices and development of each character to truly remain center stage. Each individual’s commitment to the show, in conjunction with time-appropriate lighting and environment-appropriate sounds, allows us to believe that we travel with them everywhere. We feel the vibrations of the car on the way to Durango, Colorado. We remain pensive with Boo-Seng as he gazes longingly into a motel pool. We relax with Jimmy and Isaac on a park bench on a sunny afternoon. The simplicity of the Roble Dorm Theater set does not hinder but rather propels the story forward.
“Durango” is a story about identity and all the complicated pieces that go with it. However, I do not simply refer to individual identity in this case, but rather personal and familial identity. “Durango” suggests that the path to discovering one’s identity involves a detour examining one’s weaknesses, however difficult that may be. After learning about Jimmy’s obsession with superheroes and comics, Isaac challenges the concept of perfection by stating that heroes are defined by their weaknesses. This ideal could not be more accurate for each of the three main characters. They are able to find solidarity in each other’s imperfections in rare moments to display the beautiful side of their family — and are simultaneously eaten away by these same imperfections. The confrontation of their weaknesses, blemishes and inadequacies gives each character strength that keeps us holding on and hopeful for their futures. “Durango” challenges us to accept the fact that the journey to peace of mind will be a messy one. But if one can find the strength to accept failure as an active part of life, happiness and resolution are not so far away as we think.
“Durango” plays at the Roble Dorm Theater today at 7:30 p.m. and again tomorrow at 5 p.m.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly noted the Friday night start-time as 8pm.
Contact Elizabeth Gerson at egerson “at” stanford.edu.