In Korea, a “hwangap” refers to someone’s 60th birthday. The celebration is a major milestone in East Asian culture and represents the completion of one life cycle and the start of another. In American Hwangap, a co-production of Halcyon Theatre and A-Squared Theatre Workshop, a Korean-American family struggles to begin a new cycle when their patriarch returns after abandoning them 15 years earlier.
Lloyd Suh’s play is steeped in Korean culture while simultaneously straddling traditional “American” values. Greater attention is being paid to what constitutes “Americanness” and American Hwangap explores some of these issues while still feeling utterly relevant to any contemporary family. Dramatically, themes of familial redemption, responsibility, and reconciliation are all felt universally. With charm and candor, director Helen Young navigates these interconnected themes beautifully, creating a poignant and humorous portrait of a Korean-American family in a Texas suburb.
The play begins with a winning performance by Jin Kim as Ralph Chun. A charismatic oddball who has been dabbling in poetry and songwriting, Ralph launches into a speech he has written for his father’s return, featuring a poem that he mostly has memorized. The monologue, like much of the play, is both funny and touching. Throughout American Hwangap, more characters will share their thoughts through the conceit of these speeches to their father on his hwangap, a device that works well in Young’s staging.
The major reason so much of American Hwangap succeeds comes down to the excellent cast, who all create believable characters. Suh’s writing gives them plenty to speak about and feel, and every actor rises to the material, raising it up in the process. Young’s direction is gently paced in this brisk 90-minute play, allowing the story and acting to breathe when necessary without slowing the evening down.
As Min Suk Chun, Joe Yau creates a father figure who is pleasant despite his deep regrets for abandoning his family. Yau gives a measured, quiet performance, and, like Kim, has impeccable comedic timing. As the eldest son, David, Gordon Chow creates a believable portrait of an investment banker searching for ways to reinvest in his family and come to terms with his father’s departure. Of all the play’s characters, David seems to have taken his father’s absence the most personally, and Chow captures a desire to not repeat the mistakes he’s seen play out in his family. Helen Joo Lee parallels many of these struggles as middle child, Esther, and in a moving revelation late in the play, Lee hits all the emotional levels beautifully. Last, but not least, is a powerful performance by Cheryl Hamada as ex-wife Mary Chun. Fraught with wit and feeling, Hamada’s work is the perfect window into a character who has moved on and reinvented herself, but still yearns for some of the family she had years ago.
Splendidly acted and backed by a heartwarming story, American Hwangap provides a wonderful reflection on the struggles and meaning of family in contemporary America. Its co-production is also a powerful testament to the strength of Chicago’s Asian theater artists. Intelligent, funny and affecting, American Hwangap is as much a window into Korean-American culture as it is our own lives.
American Hwangap runs through April 1 at Halcyon Theatre, 4541 N. Spaulding Ave. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 6pm. Tickets are available for $20 from https://halcyontheatre.org/, with some free tickets set aside each day as part of Halcyon Theatre’s “Radical Hospitality” program, which increases access to theatre.