by SOPHIE KERMAN
For a play inspired by an ethnographic study, Four Destinies has a whole lot of heart and a surprising amount of humor. Playwright Katie Hae Leo was drawn to write the play – which opens Mu Performing Arts‘s 2011-12 season in its world premiere – after reading a study by Kim Park Nelson on adopted children, for whom the idea of “destiny” was a common thread. Leo, an adoptee herself, grapples with this concept in two unconventional ways. First, she puts herself on stage as a character, and second, she explores the fates of not one but four main characters named Destiny: a Korean, African-American, Guatemalan, and gay white man, all of whom are being raised by the same parents in a suburb of Minneapolis. In essence, Leo has created a controlled on-stage study: what happens when the same parents raise four very different children? How much of our fate is controlled by our DNA, and how much by the stories we (and our parents) tell about our histories? What happens to those who have no access to their own ancestral stories?
Despite the very difficult questions it asks, the play’s strengths are in its satirical moments – for instance, when playwright Katie Leo (played not by herself, but by Katie Bradley) introduces herself as the “universal Korean adoptee” or when the Harrisons (Shanan Custer and Don Eitel, both hilariously recognizable as the somewhat uncomfortable family friends) repeatedly bring Destiny exactly the wrong gift for her Arrival Day celebration. And although the play does not hold back from satirizing stereotypes about suburban families and adopted children, its wry humor is balanced out in one particularly poignant phone call between Destiny 4 (Neil Schneider) and his birth mother.
Both Maria Kelly and Nicholas Freeman, in their profoundly naïve desire to do good, do an excellent job in the roles of the adoptive parents of the four Destinies, while as a quartet, the Destinies (Sara Ochs, LaDawn James, Nora Montanez, and Schneider) are all well-acted but unevenly written – Ochs and Montanez are given the meatier of the four parts, with far more interesting second-act dilemmas. Leo may have particularly shied away from some of the challenges of writing her African-American adoptee; though drugs are mentioned briefly, it feels like an important omission that Destiny never explores the troubling possibility that her mother may have been on crack.
The play runs off the rails in the second act, when Leo (the character) loses her grip on the fates of her characters. Although Bradley takes her character on a sincere and believable emotional journey as her initial bravado turns into self-doubt, the figure of the on-stage playwright sometimes distracts the audience from the compelling journeys of the four Destinies. The real-life playwright’s impulse to (sometimes satirically) expose her motivations is a good one, but goes too far when the play becomes more about the playwright than about the characters.
As a viewing experience, however, the script’s rough patches hardly detract from this funny, colorful and tender production. Director Suzy Messerole has found all the awkward humor in adoption, cross-cultural miscommunication, and growing up. With the help of Mina Kinukawa‘s pleasingly retro set and some well-placed video projections by Joshua Iley, the four Destinies inhabit a vivid world that is only idealistic on its glossy exterior. In a community with so many adopted children of so many different backgrounds, Leo’s play provides an important look into the particular issues surrounding adoption – both for parents hoping to help, and for children making sense of their mysterious DNA.