The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness
Written by Carla Ching
Directed by Daniella Topol
Loss of origins isn't the motivating fear so much as the lived reality for Greta and Han (Ali Ahn and Christopher Larkin), the sister-brother duo in Carla Ching's The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness, premiering with the Ma-Yi Theater Company (through December 4). Sent from their home in Chicago by their grief-stricken adoptive mother after her husband dies, the Chinese-American siblings end up in New York with their rock journalist uncle Doc and his wife Opal (David Spangler and April Matthis). Shortly before the play opens rebellious Greta burns down Doc's home (a scene we see later in a flashback), landing her in the Sugar House, a radical correctional facility for delinquent teens run by oddball Baba (hilarious Cindy Cheung). Clint Ramos's set design, a huge white partition made of windows, doors, picture frames, dotted with lights and leaning forward over the stage at roughly 45 degrees, simultaneously acts as a barrier that echoes the play's themes of otherness, exclusion, displacement and confinement, and as an amalgam of signifiers of domestic normalcy, with its white picket fencing and glowing lampshades. This impressive and economical design speaks volumes, but Ching's play belabors its at times very moving and powerful family drama.
The strained bond between Greta and Han forms the play's core, and though some of their exchanges are repetitive—Greta is angry and acts out at the slightest perceived provocation, we're frequently reminded—Ahn and Larkin share some very strong scenes. Would that some of this time spent over-emphasizing Greta's naughtiness have served to develop her fragile friendship with fellow Sugar House inmate Miles (Bjorn Dupaty). Similarly Doc and Opal's respective pasts and problems, though alluded to, feel too remote from the action of Sugar House to justify their respective expository speeches. Both characters are interesting, but remain tertiary, their advice-giving moments overly presentational. The awkwardness of their scenes doesn't fit with the play's over-arching division between something like naturalism and the absurd, Orwellian world of the Sugar House.
The slightly sci-fi dystopian look of the institution, with its mod gray-and-white uniforms and chalk-tipped cane-wielding headmistress in all white, stands in stark contrast to the very tangible hardships of the outside world. But this disjuncture between the play's two milieus works well, echoing the siblings' multiple experiences of displacement: as immigrants, as orphans, as children far from their adoptive parents and home, and as symbiotic survivors separated from one another. (Even their names, Han and Greta, allude to that classic detained brother-sister team Hansel and Gretel.) But beyond this very strong relationship at its core and the sheer weirdness of the Baba character, Sugar House feels caught between two modes. On the one hand, there's a potentially larger play in the works with supporting characters' respective stories brought more organically into the narrative; or, with some pruning, there's a very focused play about a brother and sister who have only each other. But here it seems, much like its protagonists, to be stuck between two places.
(Photo: Web Begole)