Review: Bald Sisters at Steppenwolf Is a Story of Cambodian Immigrants Searching for Identity

I suspect that for Cambodians and Cambodian Americans, the racist and genocidal history of the Khmer Rouge is a stain on their history just as slavery, racism and the Civil War are for Americans. A history that cannot—and should not—ever be forgotten. Bald Sisters, Vichet Chum’s world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, begins and ends with memories of the Khmer Rouge. Directed by Jesca Prudencio, the play is on the surface a story of family and sisterhood with strong undercurrents of the nature of immigrant life and the search for identity in a new home country. You’ll find plenty of humor along with the sadness in Chum’s story, but the play as a whole is unsatisfying and incomplete.

The stage area of Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater is designed by Andrew Boyce as an expansive living space for Cambodian American Him (Jennifer Lim) and her American pastor husband Nate (Coburn Goss). Living room, kitchen and dining room are spread out across the playing space with audience seating all around. The time is 2017 and often other times. Him’s younger sister Sophea (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) arrives, having driven for two days from New York to the family home in Texas.

Wai Ching Ho as Ma with daughter Sophea (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Their exuberant Ma (Wai Ching Ho) dies in an early scene, after fighting to stay alive (but fortunately, we get acquainted with her as she appears and reappears to cook, give motherly advice, and finally … to sing. Him was with Ma when she died and Ma had texted Sophea to tell her death was imminent. Sophea shaved her head (although it now looks more like a buzz cut than a bald head) in keeping with a Cambodian belief about honoring the death of parents. Him, suffering from breast cancer, is undergoing chemo—and thus, also bald. The two sisters spend much of the play bickering (as sisters do) and debating aspects of Ma’s death, burial (cremation or not?) and her lack of a will.

Nate is a gentle, soft-spoken man, eager to please and humor his ailing wife, but unsure of where he stands in this family. The fifth member of the group is Seth (Nima Rakhshanifar) a Syrian American college student, who takes care of the lawn, sometimes takes Him to chemo, and performs other tasks for the family. He and Sophea, meeting for the first time, make a connection.

The characters all are part of America’s complicated immigrant experience. Nate, a white American, marries into a Cambodian  American family and has to learn to navigate their culture, their past as well as his own. Seth, a Syrian immigrant, is studying to be a writer and trying to find his way to a successful life. Ma, who emigrated from Cambodia, brings recipes and techniques for beloved Cambodian dishes—and her memories of the deadly era of the Cambodian genocide.

Coburn Goss as Nate and Jennifer Lim as Him. Photo by Michael Brosilow

The communist Khmer Rouge began their jungle warfare to rid Cambodia of foreign elements in the 1960s and early 1970s and continued until the Khmer Rouge took over the government of Cambodia in 1975 and Pol Pot became chief of state. Scholars estimate about two million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The story has been told dramatically on film in The Killing Fields (1984).

Bald Sisters, part of Steppenwolf’s new play development initiative, is a work in progress and not quite ready for a world premiere. The acting is solid, with Ho’s endearing performance as the wise-cracking Ma a special delight. The strongest story thread is Him’s and Lim’s performance is warm and caring. But Prudencio’s direction is not able to blend the elements into a whole. The story and the characters all have potential but they never seem to coalesce into a coherent throughline. Locations of scene changes (identified in the script) are not clear on stage. The dialogue and events of the play are bits and pieces compiled to make a script.

The play features original music and sound design by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca. Lighting is  by Stacey Derosier and projection design by Mike Tutaj. Izumi Inaba is costume designer. Laura D. Glenn is production stage manager.

Bald Sisters continues through January 21 at Steppenwolf’s Ensemble Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St. Running time is 105 minutes with no intermission. Single tickets ($20-$84) for all performances are now on sale at steppenwolf.org and the box office at 312-335-1650. You can access the digital program here.

For more information on this and other productions, see www.theatreinchicago.com.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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