Chicago Theater Review: THE NORTH CHINA LOVER (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 6, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


Freud said that an unfinished task is never forgotten. But the inability to forget is nothing to the life-long longing of an aborted romance. For novelist Marguerite Duras, a love affair cut short in 1930 fueled her masterpiece Hiroshima Mon Amour, as well as the novels The Lover and The North China Lover. A screenplay from that source has inspired Heidi Stillman’s excellent adaptation and staging at Lookingglass Theatre Company. In 95 minutes this earnest effort in emotional reclamation captures the advent and persistence of an ardor without expiration date or statute of limitations.

Rae Gray and Tim Chiou

Narrated by the wonderful Deanna Dunagan as the authorial “M” recalling her coming of age half a world away, the story’s once and future liaison is not your usual East/West entanglement. As in The Light in the Piazza, audience expectations get confounded. Here it’s a poor French colonialist teenager (Rae Gray) who meets a wealthy 27-year-old Chinese aristocrat, both expatriates but with vastly varying destinies.

Duras’ nameless “child,” as the 17-year-old is called, is living in a poor part of Saigon, her “ruined” mother (Amy J. Carle) the subject of scandal, her father gone. One brother, Pierre (Walter Owen Briggs), is a juvenile delinquent soon to be shipped back to France, the other (pretty JJ Phillips), whom he regularly beats, is a tender creature far too drawn to his adolescent sister–who in turn has a slight lesbian attachment to her confidante (the sometimes inarticulate Allison Torem).

Dunagan, Walsh, Gray, Chiou, Briggs

A clean break from this hothouse clan, “The Lover” (Tim Chiou) is tall, handsome, physically perfect and suave to a science, with nothing to deny about his lucky life. He has more money and time than he can spend, a limousine of a touring car, and entrée to the best restaurants in French Indochina. It’s in a suitably sumptuous hotel that these dreamers, so divergent in race, class, experience, age and religion, find a common ground: Their effortless carnality quickly deepens into devotion.

The Child is eager to be more than a mistress or the conditional one-year bride who would be more acceptable to the Lover’s rich parents—who, of course, have chosen a rich Chinese bride as his partner. Her mother, driven to desperation by encroaching poverty, is not too proud to accept 500 piasters as a retainer for her daughter’s affections. But both Child and Lover know there’s no price to their passion and, alas, no future either. The heartbreaking depiction of the child’s departure on a French liner from the man she could only hold in sex, not life, is devastating in its details.

Amy J. Carle, Walter Briggs

Stillman gives her recreation a suitably cinematic and minimalist treatment, with Daniel Ostling’s lighting setting the scenes and a few props illustrating the memories. The acting must provide context and texture here and, for the most part, does. Erotic and elegant, Chiou is both authentic and a fairy-tale prince, the stuff that memories would batten on his multifaceted wonderfulness and never want to quit. Carle is strangely sympathetic as a mother who’s wiser than her bad luck.

The one regret is that the sullen Ms. Gray, with her sometimes slacker diction, overplays the Child’s resentment over her family’s misfortune. It’s hard to see the rhapsodic infatuation surfacing through the petulance, especially when compared to the later M’s utter paralysis over her lost love. But perhaps that’s the point: The Child never knew the miracle she had till it was over. Then she had to write and write. But nothing drains this well.

Rae Gray and Deanna DunaganThe North China Lover
Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago
scheduled to end on Nov. 10, 2013
for tickets call 312-337-0665
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