Soulpepper Production’s Kim’s Convenience is structured around a Korean convenience store owner and his interactions with family members, customers and the occasional police officer. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee plays Mr. Kim, an elderly man who opened a convenience store to support his wife and two children upon moving to Regent Park in Toronto. Close to the age of retirement, Mr. Kim tries to persuade his 30-year-old daughter, Janet, to take on the family business, ignoring her evident disinterest by imparting life lessons on her at every opportunity possible.
The production opens on a light, comedic note, showcasing Mr. Kim’s loyalty to Korean culture as he calls the police upon seeing a Honda—a Japanese car—parked outside his store. The car turns out to be owned by a black man by the name of Mr. Lee, or, as Kim and his family knows him, “the black guy with the Korean last name.”
The play draws much of its humour from racial stereotypes— something the audience seemed to love. An episode in which the idiosyncratic Mr. Kim elaborated for his daughter which potential customers were thieves based on illogical considerations of gender, race or presumed sexual orientation had the audience in stitches. While this may seem disconcerting to the politically appropriate and culturally sensitive, by no means is the humour directed at one particular group. Throughout the play, audience members savoured every scene of misunderstanding due to two characters struggling with one another’s strong accents—and particularly enjoyed Mr. Lee’s emission of a consonant as he mispronounced “peanuts.”
While the production may have been able to survive only on playful banter and some unconventional jokes, it would have become somewhat frivolous at some point. Luckily, playwright Ins Choi must have acknowledged this.
The play transforms—perhaps a little surprisingly—into a serious story about immigrant family dynamics. Domestic violence, theft within the family and mention of rehab are all included and laughter is quickly replaced with sobriety. It’s easy for audience members to feel as conflicted as the characters that draw upon their sympathies—the hardworking father, the rebellious daughter, the quiet, hopeful mother and the estranged son who feels his accomplishments to be inadequate.
The fact that the characters can evoke successions of laughter and despondency is a testament to the actors’ abilities. Choi, who plays Jung, showcases he is both a talented actor and playwright—and his singing voice isn’t bad either. Grace Lynn Kung is both delightfully and upsettingly sassy as Janet. And Paul Lee steals the show as Mr. Kim—it would be hard to imagine him in any other role.
Clé Bennett, who plays four people throughout the play, also deserves special mention. Bennett delivers each role in a unique way while remaining consistent in his charm and spunk. Although the cast of this play is small, Kim’s Convenience seems to consider quality over quantity.
With great actors, a developing storyline and a visually appealing set—rows upon rows of junk food and some strange energy drinks—Kim’s Convenience was an overall success during its premiere at The Grand Theatre. It’s not a big surprise that it sold out at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival upon its debut.
The only criticism to be made is that the play resolves its conflicts a bit too quickly. While it manages to meet the audience’s desire for a happy ending without resorting to miracles, puzzle pieces that may have been rough around the edges seem to fit together rather suddenly. Mr. Kim understands the meaning of his life narrative, and scenes of reconciliation had some audience members sniffing. Yet the speedy progression from conflict to resolution detracts from the conclusion’s believability.
But, then again, there are certain limits to capturing four individuals’ unique life stories and a family’s collective story within the span of a day depicted over an hour and a half.
Kim’s Convenience is playing at The Grand Theatre until February 2. For show times and ticket pricing, visit grandtheatre.com