The Chinese Lady – Review by Tom Holehan

Pre-pandemic there seemed to be more drama offstage than onstage at New Haven’s venerable Long Wharf Theatre. Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein got his own #METOO moment following allegations of sexual misconduct and was summarily dismissed in 2018. Jacob B. Padron then took over the reigns as Artistic Director, announced a new season and Covid then proceeded to cancel all plans. So, it’s great news that Padron can finally enjoy the beginning of his tenure with the re-opening of the theatre with a great new play.

Lloyd Suh’s “The Chinese Lady” is a fascinating two-character drama based on historical fact about a woman, Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who was brought from Beijing to America in 1834 to work as a side show entertainer. The play covers decades as Afong and her translator, Atung (Jon Norman Schneider), crisscross the country meeting Presidents and eventually working for PT Barnum. Suh’s play is notable for his astute examination of the immigrant experience, loss of identity, the nature of truth and cultural exploitation and appropriation. In 90 concise minutes (without intermission), the play chronicles the American experience through a very different and provocative set of eyes.

Under Ralph Pena’s sensitive direction, the story is given enormous power by the performance of Shannon Tyo, devastating as the young woman whose American journey eventually indicts us all. I was fortunate to first see the play two seasons ago at the Barrington Stage Company where Tyo was also the star. Time has only improved her performance which is even more nuanced and moving here than it was at Barrington. Jon Norman Schneider provides invaluable support as Atung, depicting a passive aggressive relationship with both poignancy and great humor.

Technically at Long Wharf, “The Chinese Lady” could not be in better hands starting with an exhilarating sound design by Fabian Obispo and including Junghyun Georgia Lee’s compact set, Linda Cho’s period costumes and Jiyoun Chang’s dramatic lighting.

The play continues at Long Wharf through October 31. For further information visit: www.longwharf.org or call the theatre box office: 203.693.1486. Patrons are required to wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.

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