REVIEW: Jade Heart (Chicago Dramatists)

‘Jade Heart’ needs more pulse


Jade Heart 3

 
Chicago Dramatists presents
 
Jade Heart
 
by Will Cooper
directed by
Russ Tutterow
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through May 30th tickets: $25-$30  | more info

by Barry Eitel

Will Cooper calls himself an “accidental” playwright. Apparently, he took a playwriting course after his wife paid for one but couldn’t go. In a rare case of fortune smiling upon someone, the folks at Chicago Dramatists liked his stuff and decided to give him a full production. That’s how Jade Heart was born. The play explores mother/daughter relationships of all shades, centering on a Chinese girl that was Jade Heart 1 adopted by an American woman. Unfortunately, the uneven show doesn’t really cover any new territory.

Jade Heart brings up all sorts of questions about identity, culture, nationality, and family. We flash forwards and backwards through the life of Jade (Christine Timbol Bunuan), as she struggles to connect her past with her present. Jade, you see, was abandoned at birth by her unknown Chinese family, probably a result of the one-child policy enacted in 1979. While she was an infant, she was adopted by American single mom Brenda (Ginger Lee McDermott). Most of the play involves Jade interacting with Brenda and her imaginary Chinese mother, along with the more basic challenges of growing up. Wheeler’s argument gets pretty repetitive; throughout the piece, others identify Jade as Chinese-American, and she constantly rebukes them and claims that she is only American. While this is a valid question and an interesting look at national and cultural identity, the subject gets popped into far too many conversations. If these were condensed down, the play would probably be 20 minutes shorter at least. Another repetitive debate dropped throughout the play is the status of Brenda and Jade’s relationship. How exactly is Brenda a mother? And how does she relate to Jade’s actual birth mother living out in rural China? Again, important questions, but they get dulled down by overuse in the script. Wheeler’s script revolves around a few points, and the production wears them all down by the end instead of throwing in new and exciting information. Although there are some interesting expressionistic touches, such as Jade’s discussions with her masked (imaginary) biological mother, as a whole the play comes off as stale and clichéd.

Not that there aren’t some touching performances in Chicago Dramatists’ production. Bunuan is cute and charismatic. She charms the audience into joining her on her journey. McDermott does a fine job, too, though she gets sort of cheated by the script. We get the vague idea that she is a good mother, but we never see much of the happy times. We witness plenty of sobs and racist/xenophobic tirades, but not a whole lot of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. McDermott commits fully to the role and finds the love where she can, but there just aren’t enough scenes showing us why we should care if Jade and Brenda can connect. These two women are given a fair amount of support by the other actors on-stage. Gordon Chow, for example, pulls double-duty as Jade’s love interest and masked Chinese tour guide, giving both characters life.

Russ Tutterow’s direction keeps the show moving. Nothing really lags here, even though Wheeler often writes in circles. The play does get a push towards the second act, and it finally feels like we are covering new territory. Some of the abstract choices make the world interesting as well; the dialogues between Jade and the mom in her mind are probably the most innovative part of the script and production. Unfortunately, even though the Jade Heart sets itself some very important narratives (identity, culture, assimilation) it doesn’t say anything new about any of them. Everyone involved attempts to drive the story forward, but there just isn’t a whole lot to hook onto.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Jade Heart 2

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