Kim’s Convenience rings up heartfelt laughs at Royal MTC

With everything that’s been written and said and pontificated about “the immigrant experience” in Canada, what does Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience have to add to the conversation that’s new?

Play by Korean-Canadian runs at Royal MTC until April 5

Chantelle Han and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in Kim's Convenience. Mr Kim hopes one of his children will take over the convenience store. (Bruce Monk)

With everything that’s been written and said and pontificated about “the immigrant experience” in Canada, what does Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience have to add to the conversation that’s new?

Not an awful lot, as it turns out - and that’s just fine. Its success as a play isn’t in being shocking or revelatory, or even in that it brings some much needed diversity to the often monochromatic Canadian stage. It’s successful because of the style, humour, and warmth it brings to telling the story of the Kim family.

The show comes to the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre Mainstage in a production by Toronto’s Soulpepper - and riding a massive wave of hype. The play ran not once, but twice, at Soulpepper, after becoming a smash success at the 2011 Toronto Fringe. And now, the company is touring the show to theatres across the country - with a TV show and movie based on the play recently announced. Clearly, Kim’s Convenience is striking a chord with Canadians - and it’s easy to see why.

Young Bae never wanted his children to take over his store. He runs a convenience store on Selkirk Street in Winnipeg.

"I have had some plans for my kids and for myself, and then my kids became whatever they wanted to be," he said.

"Somehow Korean people, they like the food business, either grocery stores or little Japanese-Korean restaurants. In Winnipeg and Manitoba the number of stores and restaurants is over 200.

"My generation, I was born during the Korean War. We had some kind of mentality that food is very important to our lives because we went through such harsh times. So we thought food is important and that it's quite profitable and at least we can eat!"

While Kim's Convenience doesn't reflect Bae's experience specifically, he really enjoyed the play.

Young Bae in his store at Selkirk and Charles. (Jorge Requena Ramos/CBC)

"I can see myself there inside the store and the conversations with the kids - everyone was just laughing. Probably it's very odd or different to a general audience, but to me, it's very familiar."

Set in the titular store (with a set by Ken Mackenzie that’s so perfectly detailed you can practically smell that mix of cleaning products and dust all convenience stores seem to have), the story focuses on the Kim family patriarch (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee). He’s a Korean immigrant who’s worked hard to build his store into a successful, if modest, business.

The problem is that he’s nearing retirement, his Toronto neighbourhood is turning into condos and WalMarts, and his kids - the artistic Janet (Chantelle Han) and his prodigal son Jung (Ins Choi, doing double duty) haven’t expressed any interest in taking over the family business.

And so a generational conflict is established - is it the duty of the younger generation to repay the sacrifices made by the older? Or is the point of immigrating that the next generation will have the opportunity to find their own happiness?

They’re deep questions, but Kim’s Convenience addresses them with a light touch. It’s first and foremost a family comedy - and it’s a good one. As playwright, Choi keeps the laughs rolling right up until an ending that could be called sentimental, if the play hadn’t richly earned it by carefully establishing its believably complicated character relationships.

That said, only Mr. Kim is a fully fleshed-out character here. The others (the cast is rounded out by Jane Luk as the family matriarch, and Andre Sills in multiple roles) are more thinly sketched, and serve mainly to illuminate facets of Mr. Kim’s character.

This, again, could be a significant flaw in a lesser play - but Choi knows whose story he’s really telling here, and Lee gives a marvelous performance in the lead. He’s not always an easy character to like - he’s bigoted (maybe not quite a Korean Archie Bunker, but pretty close), domineering, and stubborn to a fault. But he also shows moments of remarkable tenderness, insight, and respectfulness (notice how he greets each character by immediately asking after the welfare of their parents).

He’s a rich, human character, and Lee skillfully shows off all of his complexity, while landing every comedic punchline with perfect timing.

Ins Choi in Kim's Convenience. Choi is also the playwright of this successful production. (Bruce Monk)
The rest of the cast have less to work with in their characters, but similarly find all the comic potential in Choi’s script. The production (originally directed by Weyni Mengesha, with Soulpepper artistic director Albert Schultz taking the reins for this remount) clocks in at a crisply-paced 90 minutes. Mengesha and Schultz are smart enough directors to keep it moving briskly, and Choi’s a smart enough playwright to stop while he’s ahead.

Kim’s Convenience is not the definitive study of generational conflict in immigrant families in Canada, but that’s not what it’s trying to be. It’s heartfelt and it’s laugh-out-loud funny and it’s honest. And I’ll buy that any day.

Kim’s Convenience runs at the John Hirsch Theatre (Royal MTC Mainstage) until Apr. 5.