What do you do when faced with unbearable choices?
An American couple in Cambodia on business find themselves caught up in that country’s sad history with the Khmer Rouge – and faced with difficult decisions about justice, survival and complicity – in David Wiener’s riveting “Extraordinary Chambers,” getting a stunning production from Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company through June 30 at the 10th Avenue Theatre.
Those years in the late 1970s saw the imprisonment, torture and slaughter of about 20% of the Cambodian population by dictator Pol Pot’s orders. “Extraordinary Chambers” takes place in the present, but the events of those years have left indelible scars.
Seema Sueko, Mo’olelo’s artistic director, helms a fine cast in this pas de cinq with sociopolitical, economic and very personal ethical undertones.
Carter (Manny Fernandes) works for an American “phone company” and is in Phnom Penh to make a communications deal. He arrives raring to go and excited by his business prospects, while wife Mara (Erica Beth Phillips) flops on the bed, exhausted, no goal in mind other than sleep. She shows no interest in this unknown land and doesn’t understand what she regards as Carter’s chumminess with their driver Sopoan (Albert Park).
But when they meet with facilitator Dr. Heng (Greg Watanabe) in his Phnom Penh villa, Mara is disarmed (and charmed) by his graciousness – especially after he learns that she studied in Paris and speaks French.
Heng calls for a superb Bordeaux for the guests. “The French gave up their gypsies and Jews (during World War II),” he notes, but “they hid the wine.” Heng’s wife Rom Chang (Esther K. Chae) serves the guests efficiently, but without noticeable warmth. She is just as suspicious of these Americans as Mara is of the Cambodians.
Though she already has a date to visit Angkor Wat with Sopoan, Heng convinces her that she will be able to believe “this was still Vishnu’s world” if she goes there with him at dawn tomorrow, before it is crawling with tourists. She agrees ... and her life will be changed forever.
After the tour of Angkor Wat, Heng takes her to the Cambodian Care Foundation he sponsors – apparently an orphanage – where she sees a child she wants desperately to adopt (we will later find out why this is so important to her).
Back at the villa, there is banter about capitalism and unionism and their virtues and drawbacks. Carter speaks for capitalism: “There can be no evil where there is prosperity.” He fails to see a problem with the fact that outsourcing production hurts people while helping corporations.
But the Pol Pot era colors the conversation here, notably in several monologues by Sopoan, in which he describes his experience being imprisoned and tortured by the regime.
Wiener has said that in Cambodia, “everyone is just one degree removed from someone who was killed or someone who did the killing” during those difficult revolutionary times of the late 1970s, and when the newspaper reports that Dr. Heng and five other suspected Khmer Rouge figures will be tried for genocide and crimes against humanity, the emotional temperature rises several degrees and the real point of the play will become evident.
This is a stunning, thought-provoking play and a brilliant production, from David F. Weiner’s fabulous set of the huge trees growing out of the ruins at Ta Prohm to the use of UCSD composer Chinary Ung’s urgent and often discordant violin and cello music (edited and manipulated by sound designer Joe Huppert, with Ung's permission), and Jeannie Galioto’s excellent costumes. Jason Bieber and Joseph Huppert deserve praise also for their fine lighting and sound design.
These five actors don’t just play these parts; they seem to inhabit their characters’ very skins: Fernandes, the standard-issue American businessman, seeing little besides profit; Phillips, the damaged soul Mara; Park’s Sopoan, the victim who survived but also lost; Chae’s Rom Chang, “married to the mob” now, but with her own sad secret.
Heng sums up his position thus: “If you wish to make a man a murderer, you do not hold a gun to his head. You hold it to his family. And this is what happened here.”
Congratulations to the whole company and especially to Seema Sueko for her brilliant and sensitive direction of this difficult but important play.
“Extraordinary Chambers” plays through June 30 at the 10th Avenue Theatre, 930 10th Ave., downtown.
Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.
Tickets: (619) 342-7395 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.