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A CurtainUp Review

Eyes of the Heart
By Jenny Sandman

Before Pol Pot, I looked at everything…now, I see only limits… --Kim,

Eunice Wong and Alexis Camins
Eunice Wong and Alexis Camins
(Photo: Ching Gonzalez)
Eyes of the Heart is a spare, intimate drama about the havoc wreaked by the Khmer Rouge. Thida San is one of many middle-aged Cambodian refugee women who suffer from psychosomatic blindness which stems from having witnessed the horrors during the 1975-79 Pol Pot leadership when almost an entire generation of educated people were slaughtered.

To glorify the Communist peasant culture cities and educational centers were emptied, and millions of people were forcibly evacuated into work camps. People were killed for the slightest offences -- for being educated, for wearing eyeglasses, for acknowledging family ties, for being Buddhist, for foraging for food. The killing fields (and subsequent mass graves) became infamous. More than 20,000 people went into Tuol Sleng, the chief prison from which only six have been known to come out.

When Kim, who escaped but lost his wife in the refugee camps, says of his sister Thida, "She survived the killing fields; she'll survive this," it is no small compliment. Now Thida has received approval to immigrate to Long Beach, to join Kim who is trying to preserve the old ways for his family which includes talking his teenage daughter into an arranged marriage.

Kim, wants to help his sister lead a happier life but in addition to being blind, Thida refuses to speak and the doctor The doctor to whom Kim takes her at first thinks that she is malingering but then links her cast to the nearly 150 other middle-aged Cambodian refugee women in the Long Beach area who suffer from the same blindness. And so the doctor seeks to help Thida must find a way to talk again, to tell her story in order to heal her own heart and to save her brother's cconflicted family. As she puts it "Telling the story is very difficult-almost like being strangled."

Thida, played by Mia Katigbak, only speaks to the other characters in the latter half of the play; but we hear her inner monologue throughout. Though she appears dazed and slow, she is actually trying to work through her chaotic memories of that time. She spends her free time meditating in Buddhist temples, praying and trying to make sense of her ordeal. Kim, whose own experience was less traumatic, pushes her for information about what happened.

Through Thida's inner monologue we are drawn into her personal struggle, and through Kim's familial squabbles, we are drawn into the inevitable clash of old and new in immigrant households. It makes for a finely balanced play, without maudlin appeals for pity, vengeance or help.

Writer Catherine Filloux spent five years working with Cambodian refugee women in the Bronx. She has written widely about Cambodia (Silence of God, A Circle of Grace), and taught playwriting in Phnom Penh. Her writing is a testament to her careful research and the fact that she cares for her characters and their plight.

National Asian American Theatre Company and director Kay Matshullat have given Eyes of the Heart a simple and evocative production. A chair, some pillows, a Buddhist altar and two sliding screens, serve to create various environments. Alexis Camins and Eunice Wong, play multiple roles, but the whole cast shows versatility. James Saito as Kim provides an excellent dose of reality to counterweight Katigbak's effervescent portrayal of Thida. Nadia Bowers is a bristly but loveable Dr. Simpson. Matsullat's direction is elegant, especially during the flashback sequences, aided by Dave Morreale's enigmatic soundtrack.

Though the subject matter deals with one of the more gruesome episodes of human history, Filloux doesn't dwell on the grisly details. Eyes of the Heart is an at once heartbreaking and heartwarming evening.

Written by Catherine Filloux
Directed by Kay Matschullat
With Nadia Bowers, Alexis Camins, Mia Katigbak, James Saito, Virginia Wing and Eunice Wong
Set Design by Mimi Lien
Light Design by Clifton Taylor
Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb
Sound Design by Dave Morreale
Original Songs by Richard Maxwell
Running time: One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission
National Asian American Theatre Company, Intar 53, 508 West 53rd Street; 212-244-0447
10/11/04 to 10/30/04.
Monday through Saturday, 7 pm.
All tickets $19
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on October 18th performance
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