Theater Review: COLEMAN ’72 (South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa)

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by William C. on May 1, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Coleman ’72 is getting a fantastic world premiere production from South Coast Repertory. It is a melodrama about nostalgia, the immigrant experience, cross-generational trauma, and familial love. Told through the unreliable accounts of three siblings, this trip down memory lane brings up complicated family dynamics between each sibling and their father.

Tess Lina and Paul Juhn
Tess Lina, Ryun Yu, Jessica Ko and Jully Lee

A Korean-American family, consisting of first-generation immigrant parents and three American-born children, takes an unexpected summer camping trip across the U.S. from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. Like any good family trip, there are snacks, sibling squabbles, irritated parents, and some major blowouts. Each sibling — Joey, Michelle, and Jenn — takes turns recounting, recanting, and contradicting their memories of this fateful trip. One thing is for sure, their memories significantly impact their lives.

Paul Juhn
Paul Juhn and Tess Lina

A mixture of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, Velina Hasu Houston’s Tea, and a dash of Studio Ghibli’s idyllic remembrances, Charles Oh’s Coleman ’72 is a very lived-in world. Mr. Oh successfully captures the cross-generational dynamics, intricacies, and joys without making them stereotypes. As an Asian-American, I can attest to the many times I was transported back to my childhood home by this realistic portrayal of an Asian immigrant family. I was moved to tears, laughter, and sighs of regret.

Ryun Yu and Paul Juhn
Jessica Ko, Tess Lina and Ryun Yu

The cast is seriously great. The five main players’ performances were superbly done with good craft and empathy. I am particularly moved by Paul Juhn’s portrayal of James, the complicated Korean father. Complemented by Jully Lee’s portrayal of the siblings’ mother Annie, it is impossible not to empathize with the difficulties brought about by the parents’ choices, pains, and sacrifices. Their dynamic together is magical. Not once did I feel their synergy disconnected.

Jessica Ko and Tess Lina
Jessica Ko, Jully Lee and Ryun Yu

Tess Lina’s portrayal of the eldest daughter, Jenn, is oh so good. Not only does her flipping between her younger self and older self demonstrate fantastic flexibility, but the depth of her the performance is gut-wrenching. Jessica Ko’s Michelle, the passive happy middle sister, is a joy. Ko’s performance and delivery offer much-needed relief from the ever-building tension in the play; her generous spirit really gives heart to the narration. Our pseudo-main narrator, youngest son Joey, is played by the incredibly talented Ryun Yu, who captures that youthful awkwardness and eagerness with ease. And more importantly, his scenes with Juhn are some of the juiciest parts of the play.

Jully Lee and Paul JuhnTess Lina, Jessica Ko, Ryun Yu, Jully Lee and Paul Juhn

The design of the play comes together beautifully. Daniel Ostling’s minimalistic set is at once narratively compelling and functional. It is truly refreshing to experience a show that allows our imagination to do the job instead of sensory overload by an overly done design. Pablo Santiago’s lighting design is also minimal, a necessary framing of an internal memory space instead of the quotidian scenes in the play. John Zalewski’s sound design is delightful, especially the baseball-catching sequence. All of this is under the aegis of director Chay Yew, who has masterfully breathed life into this new work.

Tess Lina and Paul JuhnTess Lina, Jully Lee, Jessica Ko, Paul Juhn and Ryun Yu

I am very delighted to recommend this play. We are in a renaissance of Asian and Asian-American storytelling, a fantastic thing because these stories are damn good. The complicated characters, family dynamic, and a real tussle over the meaning of “being an American” are very timely.

photos by ​​Jenny Graham/SCR

Coleman ’72
South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa
ends on May 14, 2023
for tickets ($27-$98), call 714.708.5555 or visit SCR

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