By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI – This Midwest state is currently swept up in a slate of new plays, all part of a project called World Premiere Wisconsin. The project, with multiple sources of funding, is designed to showcase new work in theaters across the state.
The first “World Premiere” production to open is Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s The Heart Sellers, by noted playwright Lloyd Suh. In 2019, Suh delighted Milwaukee Rep audiences with his play, The Chinese Lady. Since then, the play, which first opened in Massachusetts, has gone on to be produced at many regional theaters. It is based on the true story of a Chinese woman who was put “on display” as a public attraction in the early 1800s.
In The Heart Sellers, Suh again returns to the theme of Asians in America. In this case, his play involves two young Asian women in the 1970s. One of them, Luna, is from the Philippines; the other, Jane, is from South Korea. They are both married to young Asian doctors who are completing their residencies.
Anyone familiar with the healthcare field can understand that these women rarely see their husbands; residencies are a difficult, if necessary, part of a doctor’s training. So the women are left alone to “celebrate” the American holiday of Thanksgiving in Luna’s apartment.
The two families have come to the U.S. through the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, a change in immigration law. To Luna, especially, this sounds like more like a “heart sellers” act, in which she imagines giving her heart away in exchange for the right to live in the U.S.
Until today, the two women have not formally met, although both men work at the same hospital.
Both women express their feelings of being strangers in a strange land, far from the home they love. Their lives are tinged with loneliness and isolation. In America, everything seems strange and unfamiliar. They feel powerless, too, as their husbands make all of the decisions that control their lives.
They claim that even the rain and the dust smell different from what they remember “back home.” They feel pressured to “fit in,” especially by their husbands. They are instructed not to “make waves.” The women must contend with being stared at while they walk to the grocery store and library. Trying to do all this while maintaining their identity is difficult, if not impossible. Luna fears that she will eventually become someone she won’t recognize.
The women speak to each other in broken English. They are so good at it that one might be convinced that both actors (Nicole Javier and Narea Kang) are real-life immigrants. Both actors have a long list of theater, TV and film credits – in the U.S. Kang has appeared in Suh’s earlier play, The Chinese Lady, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in Colorado.
Their expertise in developing a natural rhythm of conversation can be credited to Suh’s playwriting, and also to Jennifer Chang’s direction. She allows these characters to navigate this budding friendship in a very credible way.
At first, it is Luna who chatters on and on. Jane, dressed for the chilly weather, is literally “silenced” by a scarf worn tightly around her neck and mouth. The most she can do is nod and say, “mm-mm.” However, after the scarf comes off (and a few glasses of wine are imbibed), Jane eventually thaws (with more success than the frozen turkey Luna brings home from the market). Throughout the afternoon, the wine continues to flow, and their conversation becomes more personal and animated.
It evolves to the point where once-shy Jane claims that they need to go to a “porno movie” in order to evaluate how well their husbands are endowed. This is one of many hilarious sequences in which The Heart Sellers entertains as well as instructs its audiences.
The Heart Sellers is played out on a very realistic-looking set with all the hallmarks of the 1970s (set design by Tanya Orellana). There is shag carpeting on the floor, a saggy, striped sofa in the nearby “living room” and a second-hand set of kitchen table and chairs. The set is illuminated by lighting designer Noele Stollmack. Occasionally, outdoor sounds (by Sun Hee Kil) seep through from the nearby street.
Suh’s writing, in The Chinese Lady as well as this play, often veers between laughter and poignancy. He has a gift for dialogue, and his plays are richly rewarding. The Heart Sellers makes it easy to get swept up in the plight of its characters. It shouldn’t surprise audiences if, at the end of the play, they feel part of these character’s lives.
One suspects a promising future for The Heart Sellers at other regional theaters – and beyond. It is an excellent opening production for World Premiere Wisconsin. The project continues through June.
The Heart Sellers plays through March 19 at Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Stiemke Studio. For tickets and more information, go to milwaukeerep.com, or contact the box office at 414-224-9490. Masks are not required but encouraged inside the theater.