By Donna Herman
Playwright Chisa Hutchinson’s thing is exposing murky corners to the light of day. She does it with compassion and insight, but also with also with a firm finger on her funny bone. In her current show, Somebody’s Daughter, at the McGinn/Cazale Theater, I suspect the wise-cracking character of the guidance counselor Kate Wu (Jeena Yi) is somewhat autobiographical. Her boyfriend Reggie Ward (Rodney Richardson) says to her, near the end of the play as she’s standing in front of him crying and trying to crack a joke, “you only joke about things that matter.”
And while there are plenty of laughs in Somebody’s Daughter, it’s no laughing matter. Chinese-American high school overachiever Alex Chan (Michelle Heera Kim), who has a 4.5 GPA, speaks 4 languages, plays 5 instruments, and is a National Merit Award finalist, tells Kate in the first scene that she’s thinking of killing herself. Although they are seemingly polar opposites, Alex is shy, withdrawn and practically mute while Kate is witty, sophisticated, and confident; Kate, a Chinese-American woman who grew up with a “tiger mom” herself, can relate.
Throughout the play, Kate, who is supposed to be counseling her about college choices, tries to help her see that she has other choices in her life than the ones her mother and father have laid out for her. Including how to see herself and her future. But the more successful Kate is with influencing Alex to think for herself, the more Kate’s life with Reggie falls apart.
At the same time, Alex’s mother Millie (Vanessa Kai), is having a crisis of her own. She feels unloved and unwanted by her husband because she has not been able to produce a boy. She has had three abortions because they were not boys since Alex, their only child, was born. She is finally pregnant with a boy and all of a sudden her husband, Richard Chan (David Shih) is loving and attentive. But he sees her only as a vessel for childbirth.
There’s a lot going on here. Culture clashes, sexism, racism, intergenerational issues, coming-of-age narratives, young love. And there are a lot of stereotypes being confronted, explored and exploded, not skirted, which is refreshing and healing. It’s a small stage and the action takes place in a lot of different places. When I first walked into the theater and saw the set I thought “oy, there’s too much going on.” I counted 5 different rooms, 4 levels, and 4 different doorways. It felt cramped. But with May Adrales’ crisp direction and fast pacing, and Seth Reiser’s specific lighting, Lee Savage’s set design actually wound up working quite well.
In general I was impressed with Ms. Hutchinson’s insight into and understanding of the Chinese-American experience in Somebody’s Daughter. And her ability to write sympathetic characters that broke stereotypes – especially the character of Millie, the “tiger mom.” Although the character did some reprehensible things, in the end, I felt I understood her choices and sympathized with her. And Vanessa Kai did a stunning job of bringing Millie to life. I had a harder time with the character of Kate. She’s someone who covers up with humor, and is very guarded with what she’s feeling and why. As a result, I don’t feel like I really understood her issues with Reggie and why things unfolded the way they did from her side. I certainly did from his, and I thought Rodney Richardson did a lovely job portraying the hurt and frustration of the character.
Somebody’s Daughter By Chisa Hutchinson, Directed by May Adrales
WITH: Vanessa Kai (Millie Chan); Collin Kelly Sordelet (Russ Mitchell); Michelle Heera Kim (Alex Chan); Rodney Richardson (Reggie Ward); David Shih (Richard Chan); Jeena Yi (Kate Wu).
Scenic Design by Lee Savage; Costume Design by Sara Ryung Clement; Lighting Design by Seth Reiser; Sound Design and riginal Music by Kate Mrvin; Production Stage Manager, Lori Ann Zepp; Stage Manager, Merrick A.B. Williams; Casting by Telsey + Company. Produced by Second Stage Theater, Artistic Director Carole Rothman. McGinn/Cazale Theater 2162 Broadway, NYC. Performances through Sunday, June 25th . Tickets can be purchased by calling the Second Stage Theater Box Office at 212-246-4422 or online at www.2ST.com.