The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin begins with a supernatural shiver: a parked car keeps starting its own engine. The unseen driver is the title character’s past come back to haunt him.
$25-$40; $15 students.
The past is always with Harry Chin: a man whose life was shaped both by a cruel border policy and by the choices he made in a series of difficult situations. He’s had great loves, and great regrets.
If Harry seems unsurprised that the spirit world is starting to break through to his mundane reality in St. Paul circa 1970, that may be because he’s spent his life balancing two different worlds separated by a border that first promises, then threatens, to crack.
Portrayed by Song Kim in the History Theatre’s production of Jessica Huang’s new play, Harry Chin was an actual man who arrived in Minnesota in 1940 as one of the era’s many “paper sons”: Chinese immigrants who falsified identities, often including purported blood ties to American citizens, to secure entry at a time when legal immigration was severely restricted.
The play was written with the cooperation of Chin’s daughter Sheila, whose white Minnesotan mother married Harry unaware that he also had a Chinese wife and daughter he continued to financially support. The fact that the real-life Sheila, in an essay, nonetheless calls her father “the most honest person I ever knew” reflects a deep sympathy for Harry’s circumstances: indefinitely separated from his Chinese family, it’s hard to blame him for finding a new love. And...yet.
The always-poised Meghan Kreidler plays Sheila, a young woman left alone with her father and his ghosts. We learn Harry’s story in flashbacks, as his kitchen work is interrupted by figures from his past including a fellow aspiring immigrant (Sherwin Resurreccion) who never made it through, and Harry’s second wife Laura (Sandra Struthers), whose girlish infatuation with the kind cook developed into a mature love that was rocked by the revelation that she wasn’t Harry’s only spouse, or the mother of his only child.
Working with a multi-level set by Joel Sass that efficiently, if un-prettily, spans the story’s several venues, director Mei Ann Teo gives her cast plenty of room to breathe as they move through Huang’s often dream-like script. We have the feeling that we’re slowly circling around Harry’s life, seeing it from different perspectives and in different lights.
At the center of the story, Kim gives the impression of a man dazed by grief. Though it’s not a particularly dynamic performance, but the show still works because we primarily see Harry as he sees himself: reflected in the eyes of his loved ones.
Struthers nimbly moves through the seasons of Laura’s life, and Audrey Park poignantly transitions from playing Harry’s Chinese wife to taking the role of the translator who helps him appease a power-drunk immigration official (Rolando Martinez). In an unsubtle but chilling touch that’s well-executed by actor Martinez and sound designer Katharine Horowitz, the official’s harsh English becomes eerily amplified growling and snarling.
The play’s extended sequence of concluding scenes could stand some serious trimming, but it’s moving to watch Harry reach for redemption, and a surprising scene of physical transformation feels appropriately cathartic. Huang’s superb storytelling keeps us engaged with this complex, and all too timely, tale.