Theater Review: “The Heart Sellers” — A Moving Homage to Friendship

By Robert Israel

Dramatist Lloyd Suh takes us on an inner journey by weaving silences into his script that encourage his characters (and us) to reflect and pause.

The Heart Sellers by Lloyd Suh. Directed by May Adrales. Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., Boston, through December 23.

Left to right: Jenna Agbayani, Judy Song in the Huntington Theatre Company production of The Heart Sellers. Photo: T. Charles Erickson

There is much to admire and enjoy — and to recommend, with an advisory — about the Huntington Theatre Company production of Lloyd Suh’s long one-act play, The Heart Sellers.

On the plus side, the script tells a touching story about two Asian women, Luna (Jenna Agbayani) and Jane (Judy Song), who hail from the Philippines and Korea respectively. It is 1973, and the pair are in a drab apartment in a “mid-sized US city.” They bond as they prepare a modest (and often hilarious) turkey dinner together during what would otherwise have been a lonely Thanksgiving holiday. Suh takes us into his characters’ private worlds: we share their various joys and aches and we also learn about their painful repatriations in these United States, a country with a history that (reluctantly) welcomes and abuses its immigrant populations.

The advisory I mentioned above is that the production presents an aural challenge. The accents of the performers too often interfere with our ability to fully comprehend the ebbs and flows of the script. This is a loss, because there is so much to learn about our (historic and ongoing) treatment of immigrants. Unless you pay close attention, you might miss the script’s subtle references to the 1965 exclusionary act (known as the Hart-Celler Immigration Act) that reduced and restricted Asian entry to America. You might also not take in key details about the personal lives of Luna and Jane and miss important facets of their relationship as the women pare back their protective layers to reveal how fragile (and, conversely, how strong) they truly are, alone and together.

Both actors give the production their all, but there are too many instances when the dialogue is lost, sometimes as they traipse noisily around the set (effectively designed by Jungyun Georgia Lee). The difficulty reminded me of a production of Sean O’Casey’s Plough and Stars at the American Repertory Theater some years ago (Arts Fuse review): the density of the Irish brogue played havoc with grasping the emotional devastation the characters experienced as they were pitted against British repression during the Easter Rising. Similarly, in Suh’s play, there are numerous references to patriarchal repression the women endure not only in their families, but also in their marriages.

The solution would be to limit the noisy thundering of footfalls the women make as they literally gallop about the set while simultaneously speaking the dialogue. The aural rhythms could be more carefully balanced and more restraint introduced. Certainly the performers should go full tilt (in terms of decibels) during unspoken scenes. But we need more moments between them with the noise level turned down, so we can grasp the story behind the heavily accented dialogue. It’s a tall order and, in many scenes, that’s indeed what happens. The problem is that there are far too many scenes when that doesn’t happen, making for an uneven production that places a considerable burden on the actors.

We get outstanding performances from motor-mouth Jenna Agbatani, who commands early scenes with superb comic timing, in contrast to the more tightly wound Judy Song, who finally shows us that she can bust a move and let out her inner groove in a scene that features an impromptu boogie-woogie — after she consumes a large quantity of vino. I also appreciated that Suh set the play at Thanksgiving. The last time I attended a play set during our national holiday, which testifies to our being grateful for the nation’s bounty, it was in 2018 at Boston’s Shubert Theatre for a production of The Humans (Arts Fuse review). Hard to think of a better day on the calendar to underline the dramatic contrast between those enjoying the high ideals of our American democracy and those who have been exploited in the process of bringing plenty — to some.

Further, I have considerable admiration for Suh’s craftsmanship. I enjoyed how he takes us on an inner journey by weaving silences into his script that encourage his characters (and us) to reflect and pause. I grew up in a multilingual Russian-Jewish immigrant household where often-combustible emotions ruled. Unless one was cautious, one could easily ignite a firestorm that would end with verbal abuse.

The Heart Sellers supplies snippets of that kind of fierce pain, rooted in recognition of the suffering our fellow humans inflict on each other when they are engaged in the politics of superiority and exploitation. Yet we are also given a smidgen of hope. At a time for giving thanks, two women gratefully bond over the gift of friendship.


Robert Israel, an Arts Fuse contributor since 2013, can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com.

1 Comment

  1. Joanne McKinney on December 21, 2023 at 7:14 pm

    Great review. I also had a hard time understanding some of the dialogue which put a damper on things for me. I will recommend the play and thought that they did a great job, but that was a problem for me.

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