Kaleidoscoping the Past: “99 Histories”

There used to be a popular toy called a “kaleidoscope.”  It was a tube with lenses at both ends, a half-dozen mirrors glued inside at different angles, and bits of colored junk lying loose in there.

When you held it up to the light, you’d see a lovely pattern like a stained-glass window.  Turn it, and the pattern would change.

Memory is like that.  So are the family histories we weave out of memories and old photos, objects, letters …

Julia Cho, Sharon Omi (photo: Michael Palma)

Julia Cho, Sharon Omi (photo: Michael Palma)

99 Histories, now playing at the Lounge Theatre, peers into one family’s memory tube.  Sah-Jin and her daughter Eunice, a cello prodigy silenced by a nervous breakdown, are its living members.
As they take turns looking into the past, the others appear.

Early on, we find out that Eunice and Sah-Jin see sharply different patterns.  And that Sah-Jin would prefer not to look at all.

Gradually, however, as they struggle with their present situation (Eunice has come home unwed and pregnant, Sah-Jin is struggling to be supportive) they look at the past, again and again.  Each viewing comes after something — a present event, a recovered memory or artifact — has turned the tube, altering the perspective.

We hear their stories, watch them conflict, and hear them revised.  Sometimes, a story is reluctantly confessed to be fiction and tossed out, revealing a new one underneath. Sometimes, two radically separate stories suddenly merge, giving birth to a new pattern, a new meaning.

There is no final view.

But by the end, Sah-Jin and Eunice are weaving a shared history.
And we realize that their family — like every family — has countless  histories, and the telling and revising of them will never end.

99 Histories is the fourth annual mainstage offering of Artists at Play, a collective founded to give underrepresented communities a voice.  The play isn’t new — it was a breakthrough work for LA native Julia Cho in 2002 — but this its first full production here.

Its quality is something the young company can be proud of.  Cho’s script specifies complete fluidity between present and past, and veteran director Leslie Ishii and her crew deliver it well.

On Art Betanzos’ set, different times dwell together easily in space and decor.  Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting  moves us seamlessly among the shifting stories.  The sound design by Steve Garbade (a cellist doing sound for a play about a cellist!) interlaces Korean and Western music, classical and folk as well as children’s songs — and helps us believe the actors as accomplished musicians.  And prop master Sasha Monge flawlessly provides the highly specific objects that carry the family’s many stories.

As Eunice, our narrator, Julia Cho (the actor,  not the writer) creates a charming, complex woman who carries a sharp ironic awareness, a history of pain, fragmented memories, and an almost-hidden yearning to be seen.  Sharon Omi embodies Sah-Jin as equally complex, both protected and imprisoned by her “simple mother” facade and by the canonical history she has created.  With piercing accuracy they enact the slow, often hurtful tug-of-war by which estranged people work their way back toward each other.

All the other roles are secondary to this mother-daughter dyad. Among them, David Huynh stands out; as Eunice’s engaged “gentleman caller,” who remains her doctor and friend, Huynh finds an independence that the gentle, devoted Paul might easily lack.  Brendan Bradley skillfully separates his mirror roles as Daniel, the American who enters Sah-Jin’s world in postwar Korea, and Joe, the father of Eunice’s child.  Janice Pak and Jolene Kim radiate intensity and mystery as “ghosts” who inhabit the family’s past.

As she talks to us and writes in her journal, Eunice wryly likens herself to the title character in Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.”  Later, Daniel’s gift of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet becomes a family treasure.   These literary references — along with one to Williams’ Glass Menagerie and one to a Lawrence short story — have been criticized as marks of Cho’s apprenticeship, quoting the books she read in college.   But as performed here, they speak clearly about how young people — Daniel, and later Eunice — strive to locate themselves and their experiences in a larger world.

Although it is intensely focused in a single family, and occurs on the axis of a single relationship in that family, 99 Histories dwells in a much wider world.  The Korean War, the harrowing process of changing countries, the lives of Koreans in America, urban violence and racial tensions, mental illness and its stigmata … all of these are powerful forces in this family’s life.

But Cho isn’t preaching.  She just lets us see and feel — from inside — how the larger world reaches into private lives, shaping them, distorting them, sometimes destroying them.  And how the survivors, peering into the kaleidoscope of memory, find patterns and stories to keep alive everything that has been, everyone who has mattered.

99 Histories, by Julia Cho, directed by Leslie Ishii.
Presented by Artists at Play at the Lounge Theatre,  6201 Santa Monica Blvd.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm,
through Oct. 5.

Tickets:  <www.brownpapertickets.com/events/756058>