Steppenwolf presents a new twist on the well-trod territory of the dysfunctional family drama with Vichet Chum’s BALD SISTERS. As far as dysfunctional families go, too, the family in BALD SISTERS doesn’t have the most baggage. That said, Chum’s characters still have plenty to contend with as sisters Him and Sophea mourn the loss of their mother. The play is a meditation on the circle of life, but I appreciate that BALD SISTERS is an exercise in subtlety as far as family dramas go. As a result, some of Chum’s scenes meander and don’t seem to have a purpose within the context of the play, but I like that BALD SISTERS has themes that wash over audiences rather than hit them over the head.
While BALD SISTERS intermingles both mourning and the desire to figure out what remains for those still living, it’s also genuinely funny at moments. The play isn’t a full-on laugh factory, but Chum infuses the play with a specific kind of dry humor that hits just right when it needs to do so. Though the first scene sees Ma (Wai Ching Ho) literally on her deathbed with her daughter Him (Jennifer Lim) by her side, Ma returns in later scenes to show us glimpses of her deadpan observations throughout her life. After Ma’s death, Sophea (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) returns home—though she has some axes to grind with her older sister and Him’s husband Nate (Coburn Goss). Sophea finds somewhat of a kindred spirit in Seth (Nima Rakhshanifar), who accompanies Him to her chemo appointments and moves the lawn. BALD SISTERS interweaves different exchanges between the characters in each scene; some mainly funny, others more contemplative.
The play has a familiar formula for, but Chum understands well how to present us with lived-in character studies of the Cambodian American family at the play’s center. In this way, Chum also includes plot points that explore immigrant life in America, particularly in parallel between Ma and Seth’s experiences. More so than anything, I found BALD SISTERS a reflection on the cycles of life. The title comes from the fact that both Him and Sophea are bald; Him, as a result of her chemotherapy treatments, and Sophea, newly bald based on a Cambodian ritual that suggests those in mourning should shave their heads. Likewise, the play begins with Ma’s death, Him may be dying of breast cancer, and Sophea is newly pregnant, contemplating bringing new life into the world. This connective thread between the three women in this family is particularly interesting. It’s the circle of life encompassed in the three characters.
BALD SISTERS could definitely use some more tightening when it comes to the specific scenes and overall narrative flow. Under the direction of Jesca Prudencio, however, the performances deepen the character studies. Ho has a delightfully deadpan delivery as Ma, who’s unafraid to speak her mind and tell her daughters just what she’s thinking. The flashbacks give us insight into her character, but Chum writes them in such a way that they don’t feel surrealistic or jarring. Ho has an incredibly worthy scene partner in Lim. She beautifully embodies Him’s measured, mature demeanor, which makes it all the more powerful when Lim lets loose in a later moment of frustration with Sophea. As the proverbial “never do well” younger sister, McKenzie embodies Sophea’s lackadaisical nature. Ho has found her comedic match in Rakhshanifar, who delivers Seth’s humorous lines with just the right amount of inflection and a little side-eye. Goss is affable as Him’s pastor husband, though Nate is the least interesting character on the stage. That the white male pastor is a boring character seems to be part of Chum’s point, though, and Goss provides the energy that’s needed for the part.
I was curious how Prudencio and the design team would use the open space in Steppenwolf’s new in-the-round Ensemble Theater after seeing SEAGULL here last spring. That production didn’t have much set to speak of, but rather revolved primarily around the use of furniture and props to set the scene. Here, set designer Andrew Boyce uses the open concept to create a lived-in family home that’s entirely realistic. The scenic design also allows audiences to take in the action from any seat.
With Vichet Chum’s BALD SISTERS, Steppenwolf returns to familiar territory with a family drama that explores life, death, messy family dynamics, and tradition.
BALD SISTERS plays the Ensemble Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted Street, through January 21, 2023. Visit steppenwolftheatre.org for tickets.
Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com