Exceptional Acting and a Playwright With Limitless Horizons
‘Catch as Catch Can’ has been produced once before, with an all-white cast, but writer Mia Chung felt an impulse to try again with a new venue, creative team, and a cast of Asian descent.
My father and I were raking on one of the many sacred Nebraska football Saturdays in my childhood. Strong winds had stripped the trees the night before, littering our front yard in yellow leaves big enough to make a papery racket when you kicked through them with your boots, but small enough to evade the prongs of my rake, rendering the tool frustratingly inadequate for the task at hand.
Dad was making quick work of them just the same, accumulating a pile at the base of the naked birch. Maybe it was competitiveness, or hungry anticipation of the Runza I’d eat when the job was done — I can’t remember why now — but I’d decided that my pile would be elsewhere, and better than his. “Gracie,” he said as I worked counterproductively, “put them over here.”
“I’ll rake them where I want to rake them,” I said matter-of-factly.
As the words left my lips, they didn’t feel like my own. My father ceased his work and looked at me, stunned and smiling. “Every day, you sound more like your mother.”
“Catch as Catch Can,” Mia Chung’s stunning play on-view at Playwrights Horizons, inspires many such flashbacks. In her portrait of two families, she grapples with universal questions: How do our parents speak in, to, and through us? “What is inherent of our inheritance?”
Set in an Irish-American home in working-class New England, “Catch as Catch Can” follows the lives of the Lavecchias and Phelans. The matriarchs, Theresa and Roberta, and their children, Tim, Robbie, and Daniela, have been together through thick and thin. However, Tim’s trip home for Christmas sets off a chain reaction that tips their careful balance and sends the community into crisis.
“What do we do when we don’t recognize someone we also know very well?” Ms. Chung asks in her Playwright’s Perspective. “When reality resists easy resolution — or a comfortable one — do we turn away? Find a new narrative? Widen our perceptions? How do we resolve the uncertainty and discomfort of the unresolvable? When grappling with experiences that resist language, how do we express them?”
The piece asks these questions in unconventional ways, with a result as artistically rigorous as it is nostalgic. Three (very capable) actors cover all six roles — Rob Yang, who plays Tim Phelan, is also his mother, Theresa. Cindy Cheung is both Daniela and Lon, her father. Jon Norman Schneider is both Roberta and Robbie.
At first, these character switches are denoted by an entrance or exit, or by Marika Kent’s deft lighting cues. But, during the show’s climactic Christmas dinner, all pretense is dropped as actors switch between characters before our eyes. A scene that could be reminiscent of a high school forensics tournament instead showcases some of the best acting I’ve ever seen.
Of particular note is Mr. Yang, who balances a broken Tim and a vulnerable Theresa with particular dexterity. To me, the show’s most captivating moment is his monologue — a conversation between the two characters — as Tim is losing touch with reality and Theresa is caught between caring for him and self-preservation. Mother and son are one, and are also entirely incapable of communication. Both can be true.
“Catch as Catch Can” has been produced once before, in 2018 at the New Ohio Theatre with an all-white cast. Ms. Chung felt an impulse to try again with a new venue, creative team, and a cast of Asian descent. “I itched to investigate an early impulse,” she said, “to bring the two off-stage, and yet pivotal, characters — one Korean, the other Korean American — on stage obliquely by casting the white characters with Asian American actors. My gut said that the play’s theatrical journey would be fundamentally different, but the story destination would remain the same.”
When the play opens upon two Asian men playing Irish and Italian women discussing the stereotypes of Asian women, the reason for the casting decision is immediately apparent. This iteration is a softer, more sympathetic, and more affecting “second First Production.” A sister, not a twin.
This is unsurprising, given the work that is mounted at Playwrights Horizons, a venue that has never once steered me wrong. Like many writers who have been produced there, Mia Chung will emerge as a prominent playwriting voice of our generation. Catch her work while you can.