Vichet Chum Dives into Cambodian Sisters’ Debate on Mother’s Death
by Patricia L. Morin
“Bald Sisters” engages us in a microscopic view of two estranged sisters’ reactions to their Ma’s death. A looming question fuels their differences: “What will we do about the body?” Ma left no will.
Vichet Chum’s play has heavy psychological and spiritual overtones. The soul’s transition to a higher plane becomes a persistent concern.
Set in small Texas town, Christopher Fitzer has designed a perfectly mundane apartment with a full kitchen, worn couches, and rarely used meditation room.
Behind the sisters’ rapid-fire bickering—sisters from all cultures can relate—lurk their wildly different childhoods. Nicole Tung and Rinabeth Apostol bring depth to the complex characters of Him and Sophea. Their Cambodian versus American cultures clash from the outset. Intriguing Him (intense Nicole Tung), a Cambodian-born refugee in Texas, turns to Catholicism. She marries a doting preacher (placating Will Springhorn Jr.).
Emotional Sophea (free-spirited Rinabeth Apostol), an American-born Cambodian in New York City, turns to Buddhism. Their contrasting beliefs lead to opposing opinions about Ma’s body—burial or cremation?
Old wounds open. Him wants Ma buried in a coffin to liberate her soul. But Sophea demands cremation so Ma can travel the Buddhist stages to new life. By denying her mother’s Theravada Buddhism, Him represses her childhood trauma in the Khmer Rouge Holocaust and starvation in prison camps.
Sophea suffers from being childless and alone in New York. Her head is shaved, expressing Buddhist respect following a death in the family. Him’s head is also covered with cloth after chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer. The bald sisters’ anger rises as they hash out their four-year separation and alienation.
One of the most moving scenes comes from hardworking Damascus-born gardener, perceptive Seth (engaging Zaya Kolia). He helps Sophea understand her sister’s suffering, by describing his own stubborn younger sister. Seth chants a touching prayer conveying the power of his faith.
After effervescent Ma (impressive Keiko Carreiro) dies, she returns as an apparition in flashbacks. Carreiro, as Ma, is raw and real, a show unto herself as she loudly proclaims Ma’s humorous opinions.
Ma’s love for both daughters is equal and unwavering. Her character embodies a fusion of cultures, cherishing the American way of life, while cooking Cambodian meals. Ma relates her escape from the jungles, making her story genuine and immediate.
Lighting Designer Maurice Vercoutere spotlights the family’s ever-changing moods. Sound designer Steve Schoenbeck enhances emotions with background songs.
When the sisters rapidly quarrel and demean each other, it becomes hard to digest their barbs. Their debates are so furious that I had trouble empathizing with them. They move around the stage in front of a horse-shoe audience, often turning away, making it difficult to hear.
Chum’s play consistently evokes sadness, calamity, and death—recalling the immigrant experience of landing alone in an unwelcoming country. Yet Ma’s optimism for a New Year of hope spreads through the audience. She asks us all to sing “Who’ll Stop the Rain” with her, Him, and Sophea—a hopeful prayer for the ending of cultural warfare.
“Bald Sisters” by Vichet Chum, directed by Jeffrey Lo, video by Spenser Matubang, at The Stage, San Jose, California. Info: TheStage.org – to October 8, 2023.
Cast: Rinabeth Apostol, Zaya Kolia, Will Springhorn Jr., and Nicole Tung.
Banner photo: Will Springhorn Jr., Nicole Tung, and Rinabeth Apostol. Photos by Dave Lepori