The death of a parent, and the subsequent arguments over funeral arrangements or bequests, is a long-established mechanism for dramatists who want to probe the relationship of warring siblings. And so it goes in Vichet Chum’s new play, “Bald Sisters” at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, an identity play that looks at two immigrant women with familial origins in Cambodia, both trying to reconcile their traumatic heritage with their current lives and beating each other up emotionally in the process.
Chum’s play, which had its world premiere Sunday night in Steppenwolf’s new, in-the-round theater under the direction of Jesca Prudencio, is a very weighted play. Aside from dealing with the death of their mother Ma (Wai Ching Ho), who continues to makes appearances in her daughters’ lives, one of the sisters, Him (Jennifer Lim), is living with cancer. The play’s title comes from Him’s chemotherapy-induced hair loss while her younger sister, Sophea (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) has a buzz cut out of choice. Married to a white pastor, Nate, played by Coburn Goss, Him has shouldered most of the caregiving burden even as her sister claims a closer identity with their shared origin.
“I am Cambodian,” Him says angrily at one point. “You are Cambodian lite.”
That’s the core conflict of the drama, although Chum, himself Cambodian American, also is looking at such common sibling conflicts as who is doing the best job caring for an aging parent, and who is the most responsible person (and who has to be parent to their own sibling).
“Bald Sisters” is one of several recent plays looking at the struggles of immigrants trying to reconcile their past with their American present. Here, everyone aside from the pastor (whose moral authority is diminished because of a mostly unexplained affair) has been a refugee. This includes the only character outside the family, lawn guy Seth (Nima Rakhshanifar), a Syrian refugee who saw many horrors as a young person but who nonetheless functions as a kind of droll catalyst for the sisters, being as he is employed by one and pursued by the other.
The play struck me as a work with potential. Already, it is educating the Steppenwolf audience about the horrors of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, as well as the Syrian civil war, and it powerfully makes the point that many Americans saw unforgettable trauma as a child, even if that’s not evident on the surface. One of the most interesting aspects of this particular play is how the older sister lived through a different history, seeing things that escaped her younger sister’s memory. Chum’s point, I think, is that understanding that truth is essential not just to his characters being able to better understand each other, but to a broader level of societal tolerance, given that we rarely know the damage that has previously been inflicted on our fellow citizens through no fault of their own.
The piece, which ran about 110 minutes on opening, needs some cuts and I think Chum still needs to figure out what he wants to do with Ma, just as the production needs to allow the overly frenetic subplot between Sophea and Seth to grow. “You’re a great kisser,” we hear, even as we can see that the characters are not actually kissing; notwithstanding its origin in a stressful moment, the relationship is not given the truthful dignity I think the play is saying it needs.
The marriage of Him and Nate also needs more explanation; we intuit that she has forgiven him, but never understand why or even exactly what he did and for how long. And, finally, there is a stirring conclusion that belongs in the play as a hopeful ending, not as part of the bows when the audience is half out the door.
I hope Chum
keeps working on the piece, a very intense piece of programing for December but a play looking at issues ever growing in importance.
Lim is excellent in this show: her character is the best drawn, the most credible and deeply empathetic. She will lead the way forward for the play.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
Review: “Bald Sisters” (2.5 stars)
When: Through Jan. 15, 2023
Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St.
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Tickets: $20-$84 at 312-335-1650 or steppenwolf.org