With ‘Year Zero’ MRT Looks To Its Own Community

‘Year Zero’ Written by Michael Golamco; Directed by Kyle Fabel; Presented by The Merrimack Repertory Theatre at the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA. Performances through October 5th.

I have raved on these pages before about the consistently great shows being produced in Lowell at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre (MRT). The new season has started and I can’t stress enough how worthwhile it would be to grab tickets to a show and check out this warm, intimate and comfortable theater. With a capacity of only 279 there are no bad seats in the house. I was amazed at the quality of the productions coming out of this Lowell venue last year and I am happy to report that this season looks just as good!

The new season opens with “Year Zero”, a thoughtful look at life in the Cambodian-American community. Producing this particular play here and now is not a random choice, but rather a glimpse into what makes MRT’s efforts so rewarding – all the thought and hard work that goes on before you ever buy a ticket. Charles Towers is the Artistic Director at MRT and when it came time to plan the material for the new season he looked around MRT’s own community for ideas. Thus we have a play set in Long Beach CA. – the largest Cambodian community in America- being produced in Lowell, MA. – the second largest Cambodian community in America. This is one of the many small details that surprises and satisfies in the productions at MRT each year.

The title of this season-opening production is “Year Zero”, a reference to one of the most horrific events of the 1970’s, the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. It brought the senseless slaughter of millions and the foisting of insane practices and beliefs upon the Cambodian people that resulted in famine, murder and widespread suffering. Many fled to America in the early 80’s to escape the atrocities. The play by Michael Golamco, a playwright of Asian descent, looks at the children of these immigrants, some barely escaping the horrors themselves, as they try to integrate into a new culture while coping with the inevitable ghosts of their family’s frightening past. In some ways it is the quintessential story of America.

The key players are “Vuthy” a good-hearted, but friendless, teen geek; his struggling college-student sister Ra; her seemingly inane boyfriend Glenn and a tattooed local, street-wise character named Han. These are typical American youth who happen to be Cambodian making their way in the world and trying to do the right thing. Like any good story, surprising aspects of each character are revealed as the play unfolds. It feels like there is a fifth character in the play as well – Vuthy and Ra’s deceased mother looms over the scenes and has clearly had an effect on all the young people.

As the play opens we find Vuthy has lost his only friend who has moved away, and now he confides his thoughts and feelings to a human skull he keeps stashed away. Daniel Velasco plays the down-trodden youth in a low-key, intelligent performance that invokes sympathy yet exhibits wonderful comedic timing in quick, sly bursts. When Ra discovers the skull and asks Vuthy the potentially gruesome question “Who’s skull is this, anyway?” he says matter-of-factly and between spoonfuls of cereal, “It’s mine!”

Vuthy’s sister Ra (Juliette Hing-Lee) has been away at college working toward a degree that she hopes will lift her from the mean streets and which her mother always expected of her, and developing a relationship with Glenn (Arthur Keng) her always chipper fiance whom Vuthy dislikes. She has returned to get things straightened out for her brother after the recent death of her mother, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge era.

Ra is planning to keep Vuthy here with the argument that it would be too upsetting to relocate him from one school to another, midyear. She is packing up the apartment and planning to go off with Glenn, leaving Vuthy with a neighbor in the close knit Cambodian neighborhood.
Han (played by Michael Rosete) is a long-time family friend and as it turns out a confidante of Ra’s mother. But these days he is just out of prison and Ra suspects he is still up to no good. While Han is the farthest thing from Ra’s interest or intentions she eventually comes to see a different side of him and therein lie the complications.

In the end “Year Zero’ is a hopeful, positive story of life in America that has its start in the darkest days of Cambodian history. For more info, go to: http://www.mrt.org/