MKE Rep’s World Premiere of Lloyd Suh’s The Heart Sellers

Like its topic, Lloyd Suh’s Chinese Lady created quite a sensation when it was presented by the Milwaukee Repertory Theater during their 2018/2019 season (my response is here if you care to see it). So expectations were high for The Heart Sellers. Mr. Suh did not disappoint!

House lights go down and we hear a key in the lock and a whirlwind of color and talk bursts into a mid-century modern apartment. Meet Luna as she sheds her parka and makes an attempt to tidy up a bit while an enigmatic figure hovers in the hall just outside the door. Luna eventually coaxes the reticent Jane into her apartment and our story begins.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Nicole Javier and Narea Kang

The Heart Sellers is a phonetic take on the Hart-Celler Act on immigration that allowed Luna and Jane to accompany their husbands to the United States in 1973…as their husbands pursued their medical careers. But Heart Sellers takes on another turn as our play progresses. Luna is from the Philippines and Jane is from South Korea.

Jane isn’t exactly sure how she should react to the boisterous Luna, who finally convinces Jane to relinquish her scarf and parka and get ‘comfortable’ in the apartment. The ladies were aware of each other in the community but hadn’t actually ‘met’ until they each found themselves alone in a supermarket admiring frozen turkeys on Thanksgiving. And at that point Luna invites Jane over!

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Narea Kang and Nicole Javier

But they start to find common ground and shared interests and quickly start to feel at ease around each other although certainly some of that is fueled by a generous helping of Lancer’s Rose’. But there is a lot of humor here and it starts of course with getting Jane into the apartment and out of her protective parka…but soon moves to how to cook a Thanksgiving turkey…and there are a hundred quips and gags here plus a just hilarious scene where Jane channels her best Julia Child!

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Nicole Javier and Narea Kang

And just as most of us would be curious on first meeting either of these ladies, they are curious about what the other’s ‘real name’ is. And of course each of them have names that were chosen because they would be easy for their new acquaintances in there new communities to pronounce…but they aren’t random…but derived from their given names or nicknames and influenced, in one case, by a favorite celebrity. And here is one of the first instances we have of the sense of loss that immigrants have when moving to a new country and culture…giving up our name. And as the ladies compare notes, we find that there are far more other senses of loss that we can’t even begin to imagine unless we would embark on a similar journey.

And it is very interesting to see ourselves and our culture in the eyes of an outsider. That sense of freshness and curiosity is very telling. And some of it is a lot of fun and some of it is a bit disturbing…but it is all enlightening and Mr. Suh has enveloped it all in a great sense of humor.

As they open up to each other and start to find their comfort levels, it is a bit surprising that Jane, the reticent guest, becomes the more hopeful or comfortable of the pair. Luna, the outgoing vocal character, who appears the positive young woman, can find some pretty dark places to plumb. And it is interesting to experience these differences and it isn’t always clear if these are personal differences or more an indication of their cultural differences. From out point of view, it is difficult to tell, and seems at times to be a bit fluid.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Narea Kang and Nicole Javier

There are a number of metaphors for America throughout the play…Disneyland and K-mart being two. And although we aren’t actually given a location, the parkas and suggesting a visit to the beach was a good idea except it was too cold, we know they aren’t in a warm weather spot. But the radio announcer kinda gives it away…but I am not sure if that is actually scripted or not…so I am not going to continue down this path (btw: Tally Sessions who is playing Dean Martin upstairs in the Stackner Cabaret makes a recorded cameo as the radio announcer).

Director Jennifer Chang did a masterful job of setting the scene, placing the characters, and fueling the interactions between Jane and Luna that certainly puts us in the story…elicits the built in humor…and brings out the quieter introspective moments. Narea Kang finds just the right gestures and postures to introduce us to the shy and stoic Jane and then cleverly evolves into the generous and thoughtful version at play’s end. And I have no idea how Nicole Javier can keep up the pace from whirlwind to introspective observer of life to the deep philosopher that she clearly encompasses.

Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Nicole Javier and Narea Kang

The set and environment here cleverly duplicate the feel and aura around 1973 America. But I wonder how many non-Boomers will understand all of the nuance from the aforementioned Lancer’s to the gravitational pull of Disco in the post-psychedelica era to the time of Nixon and Marcos or that at one time the only Disney property was Disneyland. Those touchstones help make the play for me as well as the text itself (I recommend reading the play guide linked below)

The play runs 95 minutes without intermission and I was sadly surprised when it came to its end. So to Narea Kang, Nicole Javier, Jennifer Chang, and Lloyd Suh; hands together: THANKS. Hands extended: GIVING!

Extra credit reading: The Play Guide is here and the Play Bill is here!

The Heart Sellers runs in the Milwaukee REpertory Theater’s Stiemke Studio Theater through March 19, 2023. More information and tickets can be ordered here.