Family Dynamics Gracefully Ring True in AMERICAN HWANGAP

Family Dynamics Gracefully Ring True in AMERICAN HWANGAP

Pictured: Cheryl Hamada and Jin Kim. Photo by Marivi Ortiz.

Review: AMERICAN HWANGAP at Halcyon Theatre co-produced with A-Square Theatre

By Elizabeth Ellis

The great American novelist Willa Cather wrote, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” The same can be said for many families as they change and grow with the passage of time. No matter the racial or ethnic makeup of the family, certain universal themes ring true in family dynamics: parents seeing themselves with fresh eyes after decades of child-rearing, children realizing the fallibility of their parents, parents learning to see their adult children as individuals with their own minds and lives.

These themes play out gracefully in Lloyd Suh’s gentle family drama, AMERICAN HWANGAP, at Halcyon Theatre. A hwangap is a milestone in Korean culture, signifying not only one’s 60th birthday, but the completion of the Eastern Zodiac and an opportunity for rebirth. In Suh’s play, set in 2005, the celebrant is Min Suk Chun. Min left his family in West Texas 15 years earlier to return to his Korean homeland, and now returns to his ex-wife and three adult children in hopes of reuniting the family. While his ex Mary and youngest son Ralph appear ready to accept him back into the family, Min’s older son David and daughter Esther are far more reluctant to allow him access to their lives again. As the family members discuss Min’s presence in their lives again, their true feelings, hopes, fears, and the pain of loss resurface. Much like the beautiful Irish family drama “And Neither Have I Wings to Fly by Ann Noble,” AMERICAN HWANGAP shows a family’s struggle with love and unexpected problems. While the specific Korean cultural distinctions help develop the story, the audience will find familiar scenes, conversations, and interactions, no matter what their backgrounds may be.

Joe Yau gives a layered and wistful performance as Min; he drives you crazy with his inconsistency and occasional childishness, but you still find him affable and appealing. Cheryl Hamada’s soft yet strong Mary knows Min the best, and her struggles between the love she still holds for him and the knowledge of what will happen if she treads that path again make her scenes with Yau especially engaging. Esther, beautifully played with great love and anger by Helen Joo Lee, is the most upset when learning of her father’s possible re-entry into their lives. “You didn’t come to either of my weddings, but I did get the toaster you sent me after my divorce,” she tells Min wryly. Jin Kim’s sweet and silently suffering Ralph, a former nano-technologist sidelined by mental issues, lives a child’s life playing video games in Mary’s basement, and sees his father’s return as a cause for celebration. The most nuanced and complex performance comes from Gordon Chow’s David, whose pain and love for his father still undo him and bring him back to his childhood, even as he has gone on to a successful career as an investment banker.

Director Helen Young expertly guides the production to show the how the Chuns’ relationships shift from love and acceptance to challenge and frustration, and back again. Andrea Healy’s set, the warm and familiar Chun home, uses the intimate attic-like Halcyon space to great advantage. The audience feels as if they’re guests in the Chun home, visiting each family member and not simply observing them. AMERICAN HWANGAP will make you feel as though you’ve been invited to learn more about a family you’ve known for years, and the new perspectives you take from them will guide you towards a better understanding and appreciation of your own family.

AMERICAN HWANGAP runs through April 1st. For more information visit

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.