Multigenerational worlds collide in moving, funny and powerful ‘Bald Sisters’ at Steppenwolf Theatre

As a play, “Bald Sisters” is a prime exemplar of the American kitchen-sink family drama and a classic Chicago-style show,

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Francesca Fernandez McKenzie (left) and Jennifer Lim star in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s world premiere of “Bald Sisters.”

Francesca Fernandez McKenzie (left) and Jennifer Lim star as sisters dealing with longstanding sibling tensions in Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s world premiere production of “Bald Sisters.”

Michael Brosilow

There’s a line late in Vichet Chum’s graceful, touching, and humorous play “Bald Sisters“ — about two Cambodian-American sisters mourning their mother — that explains in cultural terms the work’s wry sensibility.

“Ma used to say because the Khmer Rouge invaded on the new year… we’ve learned to mourn and celebrate in the same breath.”

The very wise Ma, played by the very amazing Wai Ching Ho, dies in the opening scene of the play and then appears in flashbacks throughout. And she’s nearly always, even at her death, a happy presence, for the audience if not for her daughters.

“I probably shouldn’t say it,” she exclaims at the start and pretty often after. “But I’m going to say it.”

‘Bald Sisters’

“Bald Sisters”

When: Through Jan. 21

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble Theater, 1650 N. Halsted St.

Tickets: $20-$88

Info: Steppenwolf.org

Running time: 1 hours and 40 minutes, with no intermission

Caring, wise-cracking, and Karaoke-loving, Ma is a purposefully idealized figure in a play that serves as a bittersweet lamentation for her generation of Cambodian refugees who survived the devastating genocide of the late ’70s, as well as a thoughtfully emotional piece about how different American immigrant stories can be, even within the same family.

The elder daughter Him (Jennifer Lim) experienced the Khmer Rouge camps and aching hunger as a young girl, and when she managed to find her mother after their extended separation, she was so covered in dirt that she wasn’t recognizable. The memories haunt her dreams.

Her younger sister Sophea (Francesca Fernandez McKenzie) was conceived in Cambodia but born in the United States. She’s used to being treated as the baby — both protected but also condescended to — and has moved to New York from the family home in the Dallas suburbs, returning home infrequently, sometimes with a boyfriend who made her inclination to bad choices apparent.

Chum keeps this play quite modest and almost completely realistic in style. The core action takes place in just a single, long day, and it’s the airing of the complexities that matters far more here than their narrative resolution.

Ma (Wai Ching Ho) and her daughter Him (Jennifer Lim) have plenty to talk about in “Bald Sisters,” by Vichet Chum and directed by Jesca Prudencio at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Ensemble Theater. 

Ma (Wai Ching Ho) and her daughter Him (Jennifer Lim) have plenty to talk about in “Bald Sisters,” by Vichet Chum and directed by Jesca Prudencio at Steppenwolf Theatre’s Ensemble Theater.

Michael Brosilow

The sisters’ reunion following Ma’s death reveals the sibling tensions from the start. They’ve kept from each other basic facts of their lives. And planning what to do with their mother’s remains exposes very different attachments to the rituals of their roots. Sophea has embraced some Buddhist practices and wants her mother cremated. Him, married to a Christian pastor Nate (Coburn Goss), prefers a “proper burial,” more in line with local customs and, to her, an expression of opposition to the Khmer Rouge’s mass burial practices.

As a play, “Bald Sisters” is a prime exemplar of the American kitchen-sink family drama, right down to the kitchen sink in Andrew Boyce’s set design, an open living space that feels genuinely inhabited and decorated by real people and not interior designers.

Under Jesca Prudencio’s direction, this world-premiere production is also a classic Chicago-style show, featuring fiercely committed acting in an intimate environment, in this case the Steppenwolf’s new in-the-round Ensemble Theatre. There’s even a small-scale explosive dinner sequence that gets powerfully uncomfortable in just the way family dramas should.

To its credit, the genre-ish nature of the play never feels self-conscious. Produced to pretty much perfection here, Chum’s work always comes off as specific, involving, highly personal. Although it doesn’t deal in high suspense, it also isn’t predictable. It’s also genuinely funny, with a fair mix of light-hearted and acerbic humor.

Above all, this work serves as a vehicle for the three Asian American female performers to dig into juicy, deeply-layered roles, and they are wonderful to watch, all bringing different, but equally calibrated, stage qualities to their characters.

Lim plays the heavily burdened Him with unrelenting intensity, moving briskly from task to task, often not looking at other characters directly. Although just as focused, McKenzie’s portrayal of Sophea comes off with a completely different physical presence. She moves from flopping on the couch with a calculated carefree-ness to standing confrontationally when she decides it’s time to pick a fight.

And then, of course, there Ho’s Ma, who lights up the stage (sometimes with actual brightness provided by lighting designer Stacey Derosier) whenever she steps onto It. Ho embodies a woman who has come to terms with her memories, who has embraced the combination of mourning her losses and celebrating her present.

Ho is not a tall person. But in “Bald Sisters,” she certainly comes across as larger-than-life.

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