The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness
nytheatre.com review by Victoria Linchong
November 12, 2011
The Sugar House at the Edge of the Wilderness is anything but sweet. A gripping, visceral tale of institutional sadism and constructed families, the play draws from the Grimms' fairy tale of abandoned siblings Hansel and Gretel, as well as the Slavic folktales of Baba Yaga, a witch who enslaves children and eats them. It’s an intriguing metaphor for the “problems of youth in organized systems” as Paul Goodman said, which often does devour children who are unable to stick to societal rules. Sensitively written by Carla Ching, the play is ably directed by Daniella Topol, who keys into the pain of abandonment and the disaffection of adolescence without a trace of sentimentality or condescendence.
The Sugar House referred to in the title of the play isn’t a gingerbread and marshmallow confection but a treatment center for troubled teens run by Barbara Yaga, nicknamed Baba—a therapist who rather sinisterly embodies Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother—who meets her match when angry teenage Greta is sent to the center after setting fire to her uncle’s apartment. Thrice abandoned, Greta takes out her grief and rage on everyone near her, including her foster brother Han, who sublimates his feelings in music, and her newest set of would-be parental figures, foster uncle Doc, a well-known rock journalist, and his wife Opal, an African American photographer who herself went through a series of foster homes.
Ching hones in on a myriad of seething issues in the play: the failure of adults to care for children when their own lives are so fragile, the frailty of families, the messy angry emotional thrashing of adolescents as they navigate their way to adulthood, the even messier and angrier thrashing of adolescents who have been neglected or abandoned. And on an even deeper level, the play examines our connection with the past: how much of your painful history do you jettison and how much is necessary to retain? How do you keep your connection to the culture your family comes from, while being part of the new globalized reality? These questions made me think of two other recent plays by second-generation Asian-American writers: Year Zero by Michael Golamco and The Language Archive by Julia Cho. Yes, these plays are vastly different in plot and style—one being about a Cambodian-American brother and sister mourning for their mother, the other about a failing marriage—but there is a similarity in that they all express a deep yearning for connection with a past that is all the more elusive because of language barriers or untold traumas.
Ali Ahn is a standout in an incredibly strong cast. In the central role of Greta, she is a pent-up ball of pugnacious attitude and warring emotions, going toe-to-toe against Cindy Cheung as a chilling Baba Yaga. Cheung also embodies two of Greta and Han’s mothers, eloquently expressing in a short sequence the remorse felt by two adults for the frailties that led to their failures as parents. On the other end of the spectrum, April Mathis is a capable and level-headed Opal, who parries with Baba Yaga and delivers a satisfying knockout after a thrillingly deft pas de deux. Bjorn DuPaty is deeply touching as Miles, another troubled teen at the Sugar House, who defers to all of Baba Yaga’s rules in hopes that she will help him find his mother. The delights of this production are capped by Christopher Larkin who displays his considerable musical gifts as sensitive older brother Han. I seriously want a recording.