MRT focuses on Cambodian experience in ‘Year Zero’

Arthur Keng, Michael Rosete, Daniel Velasco, and Juliette Hing-Lee in "Year Zero" at MRT. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Arthur Keng, Michael Rosete, Daniel Velasco, and Juliette Hing-Lee in “Year Zero” at MRT. Photo by Meghan Moore.

LOWELL — Charles Towers, the artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theartre who will be retiring at the end of the 2014-15 season, made it his mission to find a play that would reflect the lives of Cambodian-Americans in this country.
Lowell, the city that is home to the MRT, has the largest percentage of Cambodian-American residents of any city or town in the country , and is second in sheer numbers only to Long Beach, Calif.
Towers’ search was made more difficult by the fact that Cambodians have no theater, at least not in the Western sense; they use dance, music and things such as shadow puppets to tell stories.
But Towers finally found the piece he was looking for and kicked off the MRT season with a play that does speak thoughtfully to the more than 13 percent of Lowell residents who are Cambodian-American.

Michael Rosete and Juliette Hing-Lee in "Year Zero" at MRT. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Michael Rosete and Juliette Hing-Lee in “Year Zero” at MRT. Photo by Meghan Moore.

Take the Cambodian-American angle out iof Michael Golamco’s “Year Zero” and it’s still a well-constructed look at family, roots, the challenges facing immigrants of any kind, and in this particular case, the events that caused  scars and long-lasting damage to a particular ethnic group.
It is 2003 in a small, cramped Long Beach apartment, and Vuthy (Daniel Velasco) is a 16-year-old teen adrift after the death of his mother.
He confides in a skull he keeps in a cookie jar as he eats a breakfast of generic “Fruit Loops.” His older sister, college student Ra (Juliette Hing-Lee) is packing and will be going off to Berkeley to live with her Chinese-American boyfriend Glenn (Arthur Keng), handing off Vuthy to move in with an aunt who is actually only a family friend.
Vuthy’s self-admitted nerdiness — he plays “Dungeons and Dragons” over the phone with his one true friend, who recently moved away — puts him at risk from bullying from others, something he has grown used to.
“I’m not Cambodian enough for the Cambodian kids,” he laments.
Vuthy finds a refuge in neighbor Han (Michael Rosete) aka “The World’s Largest Cambodian,” who has just been released from prison. He lives with his father next door and shares a past with Ra and Vuthy; their mother used to feed him even when they had little to eat themselves, and Ra and Han had a relationship that rekindles itself, even as she ponders her move away from Long Beach — and her brother.
Han lives on the edge and always did, and even after being released from jail is plotting something that could either see him dead or back in jail. Even though he is back on the streets, he is in a way still in jail, with his gang ties providing the prison.
He sees it as his duty to protect Vuthy from bullying and add to his “life experience” in a variety of ways.
Vuthy detests Glenn, and everything about him, from his preppy clothes to the fact he has two “n’s” in his name, even though he is a medical resident who hopes to shepherd Ra into a medical career of her own. Vuthy throws Glenn’s olive branch and invitation to move in with him and Ra back in his face.
Always in the fore are the events that saw the migration of so many Cambodians to the U.S. in the late 1970’s and 1980’s — the Khmer Rouge genocide of 1.7 million of their countrymen, with whole families being wiped out.
Ra and Vuthy’s mother never talked about events back in Cambodia that wiped out her family — maybe she was busy working 17 hours a day at her store to keep the family intact, or perhaps her children were too afraid to ask, to drag their mother through the memories again.
Set designer Randall Parsons augments his apartment set with sliding panels of Vuthy’s art that help describe the action; they are examples of what Vuthy hopes will blossom into a career in graphic arts some day. David Remedios contributes effective original music and effective sound design.
“Year Zero” has a quartet of warm, winning performances and strong, assured direction from Kyle Fabel. Golamco’s characters will eventually reach a crossorads; decisions will have to be made, decisions that will have a profound impact on a family on the brink of disintegration.
Towers and the MRT waited a long time to find a piece that would speak effectively to the Cambodian-American experience. They finally found it, and it was worth waiting for.
Hopefully, theater-goers of all kinds will embrace it.
The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of “Year Zero” through Oct. 5 at the Nancy Donahue Theatre, 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell. Box Office 978-654-4678 or Written by Michael Golamco, Directed by Kyle Fabel; Scenic Designer, Randall Parsons; Costume Designer, Deborah Newhall; Lighting Designer, Brian J. Lilienthal; Sound Designer/Composer, David Remedios; Stage Manager, Casey Leigh Hagwood; Fight Choreography, Ted Hewlett.