Is there any place on Earth more mysterious than North Korea? Aside from the grand ambitions of the brutal dictator (known to his subjects as “Our Dear Leader”) who runs the country without any restraints, one of the greatest mysteries is how the people are able to survive despite living in poverty, fear and enforced ignorance about the outside world. And then there are other mysteries, like: Why isn’t there a constant stampede to the border? Doesn’t everybody want to leave? Do they really think they don’t deserve more? Or are they afraid that the world outside is even more dangerous?
Mia Chung’s You for Me for You explores life in North Korea, as well as what happens to those brave people who decide to leave.
Sisters Minhee and Junhee have been driven to the brink of despair by hunger and illness – there’s not enough food for them, and not enough medicine either. Minhee’s husband (a government official) and son have disappeared, both having offended the government in different ways. Despite her desperate need, Minhee is terrified of upsetting anyone – an important fear in a land where one can get reported to the authorities for even the slightest so-called infraction.
“The trees don’t have ears, Minhee.” says Junhee, letting her older sister know she can speak freely.
“How are you so sure?” Minhee responds.
For Minhee, who is frequently trembling with panic, fear of the outside world is so great that she’d rather just stay where she is. At Junhee’s urging, the reluctant Minhee agrees to join her sister in making an escape. But Minhee is weaker, and on their way to the border, she falls down a well and disappears. The sisters are separated.
Soon we are following both sisters’ lives in two different countries – and two different realities. Junhee makes her way to New York City, where she becomes a nurse at a busy hospital but finds America’s culture, and language, overwhelming. Minhee, after falling down the well, begins searching for her missing son – a journey that finds her encountering everyone from corrupt government officials to a frog and an accordion-playing bear. (Yes, an accordion-playing bear.)
Chung, in a note in the play’s program, writes that “I made a deliberate choice to employ magic realism as a narrative strategy – rather than attempt to depict the country realistically.” That’s an interesting choice, but it works better in theory than in practice; many of Minhee’s scenes are bizarre, repetitive and hard to follow. They do little to enlighten the audience about North Korea – or about Minhee.
Meanwhile, in New York, Junhee has her own difficulties. She has a hard time communicating in English – which Chung demonstrates uses an ingenious running gag about people in a new country being hard to understand. It’s witty and inspired, but it’s so subtle that it took me several scenes’ worth of garbled phrases to figure out the joke. As a result, these scenes are almost as perplexing as the Korean-set ones, but in a different way. As Chung’s characters are unable to connect to the world around them, they’re also unable to connect to the audience.
Eventually, the fast-paced, over-commercialized pace of American society wears Junhee down in a way that Korea never did. She finds contentment – and love, with a charming man from Alabama – but her overwhelming guilt about her sister’s situation leads her to find a solution for it. Or does it? How much of this is real, after all?
You for Me for You is always fascinating, and its insights into the immigrant experience are perceptive. But the herky-jerky, digressive structure of the contrasting scenes quickly becomes frustrating and disorienting.
Despite the play’s weaknesses, InterAct’s production is absorbing, benefitting from solid direction by Rick Shiomi and energetic choreography by Jungwoong Kim that puts across the playwright’s points effectively. Shannon Zura’s ominous sound design, Peter Whinnery’s hazy lighting, and Melpomene Katakalos’ austere set design express the danger that the sisters face. Susan Smythe’s costumes help to tell the story too: Minhee, who feels invisible in Korea, wears a sweater that’s virtually the same color as the set, allowing her to virtually fade into the background.
Bi Jean Ngo (as the anxious, demoralized Minhee) and Mina Kawahara (as the curious, striving Junhee) give richly emotional performances. They receive solid support from Justin Jain, playing a multitude of serious and comic roles, and from Dwayne Thomas as the laid-back boyfriend. And Hillary Parker, playing every American woman Junhee meets, is delightful, making the most of a purposely limited vocabulary.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
You for Me for You plays through April 16, 2017 at InterAct Theatre Company, performing at The Drake – 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 568-8079, or purchase them online.