Playwright David Wiener’s Extraordinary Chambers may not be altogether extraordinary (it’s the least bit overwrought in places), but it is a tense, contemplative work comprised of moments that chill you to the marrow. Like when the bespectacled Cambodian guide Sopoan (Albert Park) recounts hiding his glasses from the Khmer Rouge, to whom reading was a crime worthy of execution. Or when the naïve American businessman Carter Dean (Manny Fernandes) first confronts the horrifying truth about his host in Phnom Penh, Dr. Heng (Greg Watanabe). The impact of these revelations linger.
In Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company’s production of Extraordinary Chambers at the 10th Avenue Theatre downtown, you become immersed in Wiener’s narrative – a story of restless strangers in a strange land – only to learn just as Carter and his wife do that the victims and survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime are omnipresent, in flesh or in spirit. Though an estimated 1.7 million (the number is probably much higher) died in the Khmer Rouge’s killing fields in the ‘70s, this incredibly grim chapter in human history remains obscure to many people. Extraordinary Chambers (the title refers to a tribunal empowered to bring culpable Khmer Rouge members to justice) is a potent reminder.
Mo’olelo’s Seema Sueko directs a committed cast highlighted by Watanabe, who in a previous Geffen Playhouse production of Extraordinary Chambers portrayed Sopoan and here tackles Dr. Heng, and Esther K. Chae, an enigmatic and secretive presence as Heng’s wife, Rom Chang. Fernandes and Erika Beth Phillips as Carter’s wife, Mara, are less engrossing figures, but how they grapple with the story’s questions of loss, longing, moral conscience and guilt is central to understanding why what happened in Cambodia is not just a tragedy for the Cambodians.
Albert Park’s Sopoan speaks for the haunted and tortured for whom the killing fields will never be as fleeting as a nightmare. His well-timed monologues and his second-act interrogation speak to the desperation and devastation that the Khmer Rouge left in its wake. His is also this production’s most understated and ultimately resonant performance.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat