East West Players takes a chance on something new—a ghost story set in contemporary Vietnam—and comes up with a winner in Eddie Borey’s Christmas In Hanoi. As brought to life by a topnotch creative team, Borey’s EWP’s playwriting competition-winning script makes for a strong 2013 opener for the country’s premier Asian-American theater.

EWP_CIH_3  Winnie (Elizabeth Liang) and Lou (Joseph Daugherty) are 30something biracial siblings who, accompanied by their Irish-American father Philip (Michael Krawic) and Vietnamese grandfather George (Long Nguyen), travel to Vietnam to reconnect with their Asian roots a year after the death of their beloved mother Oahn (Elyse Dihn). Along for the ride is Oahn’s ghost, who follows them from Massachusetts to a Saigon renamed Ho Chi Minh City to the northern capital city of Hanoi.

While surfing bum-turned-acupuncturist Lou seems exhilarated by the adventure of the trip, anesthesiologist Winnie has had it up to here with her ne’er-do-well younger brother’s escapades, and would just as soon have nothing to do with her alcoholic dad’s latest whim. To straight-arrow Winnie, Philip and George’s uncritical embrace of Lou’s carefree lifestyle represents one repeated slap in the face of a daughter and grandchild who’s always striven to do things right, and has felt little recognition of her many accomplishments.

Southeast Asia provides the siblings with more than a little culture shock—the heat, the poverty, the language they have never learned—and before long Lou finds himself conversing with his deceased mother, who in ghost story tradition can be seen by no one but the son she always seemed to like best.

Meanwhile, fearing that Grandpa George may be secretly ill, Winnie searches through her grandfather’s things, only to discover that his real reason for the trip home has something to do with a northern Vietnamese Spirit Medium and a Cham ghost searching for her lost people.

EWP_CIH_1 With talk of Spirit Mediums and Cham ghosts, I must confess to having gotten a bit lost around this time. Also, I would have preferred the play’s final scene to involve the entire Ganley family rather than a single member, focus having been evenly divided among the foursome up until that point. Still, with Christmas in Hanoi’s ghost story elements presented with remarkable effectiveness by its cast and team of designers, these ended up minor criticisms.

Playwright Borey, who shares the same ethnic background as his young hero and heroine, has created authentic, three-dimensional characters for Liang, Daugherty, Krawic, and Nguyen to sing their teeth into. The prickly sibling relationship rings particularly true as Borey resists taking sides, allowing us to see Winnie’s and Lou’s strengths and weaknesses in equal measure.

And when was the last time you saw a ghost story on an L.A. stage, let alone one that actually makes you believe, as Borey’s does, aided and abetted by Jeff Liu, Scenie-winning Outstanding Director of The Chinese Massacre (Annotated), whose direction of EWP’s delightfully comedic Wrinkles and the recent screwball farce Slice make Liu an inspired choice to helm Christmas In Hanoi, a play which also generates quite a few laughs under Liu’s assured comedic hand.

EWP_CIH_7 Scenie winners Liang (Best Lead Actress in Crimes Of The Heart) and Daugherty (Outstanding Lead Actor in Voices From Okinawa) couldn’t be better as the feuding siblings. Liang gives us a Winnie whose caustic exterior hides a wounded heart which she lets us glimpse to powerful effect. Meanwhile, Daughtery’s Lou has coasted through life on his good looks and goofy charm, though he too lets us see beneath the surface to an interior considerably smarter and stronger than anyone has give him credit for.

EWP_CIH_4 Krawic is excellent not only as Irish-American Philip but in a number of supporting roles, most notably as Ian, old friend of Lou’s whose expatriate life in Vietnam gives new meaning to the term Ugly American. Dinh too plays multiple roles artistry and flair, from Oanh’s maternal ghost to a crippled Vietnamese beggar to the mysterious Spirit Shaman to a honeymooning tourist from the good old U.S.A. with Krawic equally effective as her all-American groom.

Finally, there’s Nguyen’s scene-stealing turn as Grandpa George, a role in which the Vietnamese-American not only convinces us that he’s a still-spry quarter-century older than in real life, but one which Nguyen invests with an irresistible warmth and joie de vivre.

EWP_CIH_2 Sharing credit for Christmas In Hanoi’s success are its design team, beginning with scenic designer François-Pierre Couture, whose abstract Asian-themed set enables us to see the play’s many locales in our mind’s eye, especially as lit to dramatic perfection by six-time Scenie-winning Lighting Designer Of The Year Jeremy Pivnick. Ivy Y. Chou’s excellent costumes range from Lou’s beach bum tank top and shorts to Oanh’s ghostly Vietnamese-print gown to assorted multi-ethnic cameo outfits. Tesshi Nakagawa gets top marks for Christmas In Hanoi’s many props Finally, the evening’s MVP award goes to sound designer John Zalewski, continuing to top himself with a complexly-layered mix of sounds and music that along with Pivnick’s dramatic lighting makes for as thrilling a scene of demonic possession as I’ve seen in a live theatrical production.

Maya Rodgers is stage manager.

Like the best of East West Players’ World Premieres, Christmas In Hanoi gives audiences a glimpse into lives and cultures not often represented on our mainstream stages. Fascinating, elucidating, emotionally engaging, and ultimately quite touching, Borey’s play gives Vietnamese-Americans a voice in American theater, and audiences of other backgrounds the opportunity to walk a mile in the Ganley family’s multi-ethic shoes.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
February 13, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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