By Eric Marchese | Special to the NB Indy
Charlie Oh’s “Coleman ’72,” now in its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, gives us the memories of three siblings whose parents emigrated to the American Midwest from Korea after the Korean War, hoping to give their children a better life.
Now adults with families of their own, the threesome start comparing recollections while visiting their father’s gravesite, looking back at themselves from the perch of maturity. Reality, though, often contrasts markedly with perceptions.
The story’s jumping-off point is an adventure orchestrated by dad James (Paul Juhn), who shows up in the driveway with a new Coleman ’72 tent-camper trailer and announces that the family will spend the summer driving from Milwaukee to California, towing their temporary home behind the family Buick.
James’ wife Annie (Jully Lee) is startled but submits to her husband’s wishes. Taken aback but given little choice are children Jenn (Tess Lina), Michelle (Jessica Ko) and Joey (Ryun Yu).
Playwright Oh wrote “Coleman ’72” during the depths of the pandemic after learning that the Korean side of his family had taken precisely such a trek during the 1970s. To him, the experience only heightened the differences between parents who viewed themselves as Koreans and children not just born in the U.S. but who defined themselves as Americans.
As the road trip unwinds, it quickly devolves into petty bickering that’s both laugh-inducing and gripping.
Dad browbeats his kids, calling them soft and spoiled. Just being high achievers isn’t good enough: They have to demolish all competitors. He expects Jenn to attend medical school at Harvard. He bullies Joey to excel at baseball, bent on making him tougher. Michelle is, mercifully, lost in the shuffle, yet still a target of impossible expectations.
For traditional Korean families, women and children are subservient to men, the model embodied by James. His kids, though, think of themselves as Americans, and mom Annie is caught in the switches.
The family conciliator, Lee’s Annie works unceasingly to protect her kids from her husband’s aggression, a protective buffer between spouse and children – yet Oh gives her a delightful preoccupation as Annie spouts trivia about America’s 50 states.
Her knowledge of her new country is at odds with that of her husband, whose ignorance of American pop culture soon comes to light.
Intensity is the hallmark of Juhn’s portrayal, his James holding the steering wheel in an iron grip, eyes glazed. Glaring through his glasses and the windshield, James is often overcome with anger he can’t hide and shame he does his best to conceal.
The playwright, though, will have no part of painting a one-dimensional portrait of a parental autocrat, and as “Coleman ’72” winds toward its conclusion, the nature of this often bullying father is dissected by his kids – not just his true feelings but, more crucially, his motives.
What might sound like a more or less straightforward tale is, thanks to Oh’s skillful writing, more layered and involved. Told in concentric circles, the script’s revelations come at us unexpectedly.
Oh has mined enough dramatic conflict to fill several plays, but “Coleman” demonstrates his brilliance in two more ways. First, while James raises his children as if they were Korean, Annie understands their desire to assimilate, which raises repeated disputes between her and James.
Second, Oh mines rich veins of humor in the family’s continual clashes, giving audiences plenty of places in which to laugh, relieving the tension of the non-comedic moments.
Throughout the road trip, mom and dad repeatedly clash. James insists that “Korea is changing” (read: becoming “democratized”), prompting Annie to ask “Who are you? This is not what we believe.”
As the family nears California, events conspire to reveal the real reason James insisted on making the trip. Avoiding any spoilers, suffice it to say that his goals, which involve moving the family back to Korea, reinforce the story’s themes of traditional versus progressive, old versus new, and hope versus cynicism born of pragmatism.
James and Annie believe they’re not within earshot of the kids – but unbeknownst to them, Jenn is able to piece together what’s going down. The oldest child, she learned just enough Korean in her early life to be able to translate her parents’ heated arguments and pass her findings on to her siblings.
During flashbacks, the kids morph back and forth between their current and younger selves, a continual state of flux mastered by Lina, Yu and Ko. While all five cast members function as an ensemble, “Coleman ’72” eventually narrows its story of generational conflict down to two characters: James, representing Korean tradition, and Jenn, the next generation of Koreans.
Dad’s vision of that new wave means leading Korea’s newest regime into a bright future; by contrast, daughter’s means assimilating into American culture and enjoying the best of both worlds. While each member of SCR’s quintet shines, Juhn and Lina are out-and-out superb.
Juhn in particular offers a stirring portrayal of not simply a stern autocrat, but a husband and father proud of his country’s heritage, his beliefs nurturing a stirring adherence to ideals of democracy he considers not just part and parcel of the U.S., but something universal.
Director Chay Yew is more than up to the task of delivering the story the playwright intended. It’s doubtful that even one person seeing SCR’s production will fail to connect with the challenges the play’s core family faces.
The production’s resounding success is shared equally by the script itself, the cast’s outstanding acting and the show’s direction, with the work of the production staff carrying the show over the finish line.
As “Coleman ’72” demonstrates, trying to unearth the truths of our childhoods is a painful but probably necessary process. The emotions of Oh’s script are so real and raw as to make the play, above all else, a drama.
That weight, though, is punctuated and leavened by enough comedic moments so as to make the production’s often harsh truths not just palatable but enjoyable.
Julianne Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Through May 14. Running time: One hour, 40 minutes (no intermission). Tickets: $27 to $98. Purchase / information: 714-708-5500, www.scr.org.
Source: Newport Beach Independent