Susan Lieu’s solo show title is 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, but it’s more a personal story. Directed by Sara Porkalob, the 75-minute story ran November 14-17 at Chicago’s Den Theatre, and was promoted to be about how and why Lieu’s mom died.
But it wasn’t, exactly, although Lieu mentions she wants to avenge her mom’s death. The play is a mish-mash of rapid-fire personal reflections, any one of which could have benefitted from a deeper dive, yet none did.
“Two hours into surgery, Susan’s mother loses oxygen to her brain and the plastic surgeon deliberately does not call 911 for 14 minutes.” Why did that surgeon need to call another doctor? Apparently, mom went to a strip mall surgical office but there’s not enough detail.
“The surgeon is charged with medical negligence.” The legal ramifications are mentioned but not plumbed. What was teased as an in-person, news magazine-style chronology of facts and hunt for justice boiled down to just breathless bullet points.
We know mom dies because it’s in the title, but maybe that’s something that could be ramped up to in the production? Nonfiction guidelines for creating narrative handholds via tension and drama aren’t implemented here.
The important story of Asian immigrants wanting to assimilate in American society at any cost is considered. Mom scheduled surgery to have a tummy tuck, plus get a chin implant and have her nostrils narrowed, a Western aesthetic encouraged by the beautiful women the family watched on TV every Saturday night, a weekly event that also featured interstitial plastic surgery commercials (the play features video clips and home movies on an upstage screen, designed by Derek Edamura).
Mom worked in Vietnamese nail salons, and apparently her surgeon, Dr. Leslie Moglen, targeted working-class immigrants for elective surgery. Over 24 lawsuits were filed against him, so perhaps gathering and presenting those stories would have provided more narrative glue.
The snippets featuring her aunts and their cultural, familial tropes might have been expanded too, because they were more vibrant “show” than indulgent, static “tell.” The women in the family eat at Sizzler because it’s the most amount of food for the least amount of money, and they “force feed you then say you’re fat.”
By far the most fascinating component was the spirit channeling. Lieu’s family in general and dad in particular could invite departed people into their bodies to speak. Lieu had the unique opportunity to straight-up ask her mom all the questions she wished she had asked but didn’t pre-mortem, probing questions like “am I exploiting your story to relieve my trauma?” The production spent most of the time addressing “why me” instead of the title’s promise: “why her?”
Lieu said she developed the piece two years ago. While it shares energy, the play still feels like a workshop piece by a novice actor trying to cram a life into a box. At present, it’s an outline focused on personal breadth over narrative depth. She explains her use of accents in the program, an unnecessary beginners’ choice. Another multi-minute navel-gazing curtain speech followed the production, which concluded by gathering the audience onstage for an Ellen-at-the-Oscars, Millennial group selfie. Sweet like a family reunion but awkward for those just looking to watch, and be moved by, a play, for those wanting more showing and less telling.