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Somebody's Daughter

I have some good news, too. Our baby is going to be a boy. For sure this time. No more disappointments. Your father and I are very happy.— Millie, speaking to her 15-year-old daughter Alex, in Chisa Hutchinson's Somebody's Daughter
somebody's daughter
Michelle Heera Kim and Vanessa Kai (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)
In Somebody's Daughter, now at Second Stage's location on Manhattan's Upper West Side, playwright Chisa Hutchinson proves herself a sharp-eyed observer of character with an up-to-the minute ear for how Americans of differing ages and backgrounds speak and interact.

The twists and turns of Hutchinson's script are frequently surprising and always convincing. What's most striking at evening's end is the way this youthful dramatist navigates the shift from a very funny first act to a second that's almost unrelentingly serious and quite disturbing. That tonal change shouldn't work; but it does, and it does so in spades.

Hutchinson's professional resume features a number of glittering prizes (Lilly, GLAAD, and New York Innovative Theatre awards among them). two of her full-length plays have been published. Somebody's Daughter was developed with the support of a 2016 Tow Foundation grant.

Despite the sophistication of its structure, this new play has the emotional vigor and justifiable indignation of a first-time effort such as Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey. Without that clear-headed urgency, Somebody's Daughter might have been a common-and-garden teen-crisis drama (a sort of Blue Denim for the new millennium). But Hutchinson has fire in the belly about things that matter — the sting of racism, for instance, and the toxicity of intolerance; and that's what makes Somebody's Daughter a rather special work of art.

At the center of the play are two first-generation Americans: high-schooler Alex Chan (Michelle Heera Kim) and Kate Wu (Jeena Yi), the school faculty member responsible for guiding Alex and her affluent classmates along the path to college.

Alex is the daughter of still-youthful parents who left the People's Republic of China for Irvine, California before she was born. A gifted student, adept at languages and musical instruments, Alex has skipped two grades. Now 15, she's a year away from college with a 4.5 grade-point average.

At the play's start, Alex has learned she's a National Merit Scholarship finalist; and she knows all too well how her dour tiger-mom, Millie (Vanessa Kai), will react to the news. Millie is going to ask, "Just a finalist?"

For 15 years, Millie and Alex's father Richard (David Shih) have been trying to conceive a son, aborting female fetuses along the way. Their disappointment in Alex and her unborn sisters is rooted in the Chinese peasant tradition that favors sons over daughters, boys over girls, men over women. That benighted world view has cast a shadow across the parents' marriage, souring the atmosphere of their home and undermining Alex's emotional developmental.

Older and wiser than Alex, Kate is well-acquainted with the gender bias of the Chan household and of both eastern and western society. As an Asian-American romantically involved with an African-American man, Kate's sensitive to the tensions that result from differences in background and cultural experience. In their pre-college counseling sessions, Kate struggles to connect with the taciturn Alex, urging her to shake off her near-robotic demeanor and stop living an unexamined life.

"Come on," Kate pleads with Alex. "What do you think sets you apart from all those other ridiculously high-achieving Chans out there? ... You must have a fire in there somewhere ... a secret wish maybe?"

Kate's prodding opens the proverbial can of worms. Alex begins questioning her parents' values; and, to her mother's horror, becomes romantically involved with Russ (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), a Caucasian whose academic record is merely so-so. Before long, Alex is in open revolt against her upbringing, indulging a yen for adventure and intimacy.

Somebody's Daughter is an ambitious chronicle of the Chans' deteriorating family dynamics and a comparable downward arc in Kate's relationship with long-time domestic partner (and would-be fiance) Reggie (Rodney Richardson). There's also Alex's relationship with Russ, which is something short of grand romance but, due to grown-up consequences, well beyond puppy love. This part of Hutchinson's story could be a play in itself.

At times, Hutchinson's characterizations tread a thin line between recognizable ethnic attributes and stereotype (especially the flinty humorlessness of Millie and Reggie's prickly machismo). But the play's facile moments are redeemed by a number of complex, well-wrought scenes, most notably a second-act monologue in which Millie, straining to justify her harsh treatment of Alex, bares acute insecurity, as well as disappointment about her own thwarted aspirations.

May Adrales's skilled direction gives Somebody's Daughter focus, drive and intensity (audience members are unlikely to be checking their timepieces). Designers Lee Savage (scenery) and Seth Reiser (lighting) have transformed the tiny stage of the McGinn/Cazale Theater into a flexible, constantly changing environment that permits Adrales to move her actors back and forth in chronology with efficiency and clarity. Sound designer Kate Marvin's original music enhances the production's cinematic fluidity.

The virtues of Hutchinson's script are bolstered by sensitive performances from all six cast members. Kim, convincing as a 15 year old, imbues Alex with a combination of naivety and courage that supports the character's swift switch from timidity to rashness. Yi's spirited interpretation of Kate makes it easy to understand why Alex blossoms under the counselor's influence.

Richardson and Kelly-Sordelet are effective in supporting roles. Shih, as the hands-off father, makes the most of an underwritten part.

Millie's early scenes give Kai little opportunity for nuance. But when the character drops her guard in Act Two, the results are an alarming burst of violence, a heartrending confession, and a performance that's what spectators will recall most vividly about this production.

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Somebody's Daughter by Chisa Hutchinson
Directed By May Adrales.
Cast: Vanessa Kai (Millie Chan), Collin Kelly-Sordelet (Russ Mitchell), Michelle Heera Kim (Alex Chan), Rodney Richardson(Reggie Ward), David Shih (Richard Chan), Jeena Yi(Kate Wu).
Scenic design by Lee Savage
Costumes by Sara Ryung Clement
Lighting design by Seth Reiser
Dound design by Kate Marvin
Production Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
Stage Manager: Merrick A.B. Williams
Running Time: Two hours including one intermission
At Second Stage Uptown at the McGinn/Cazale Theater, Broadway at 76th
From 5/23/17; opening 6/06/17; closing 6/25/17.
Reviewed by Carles Wright at June 3 press preview

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