“Letters From Home” Review

It started as a young man of 22 years, with dreams of becoming a Doctor of Music and shared his dream with a stranger while riding an elevator, which lead to a scholarship from the Rockefeller institute for his studies at Columbia University. Then quickly his world was darkening by war in Cambodia where he can no longer return home. He received countless letters from relatives, strangers and he was overwhelmed by them. He “couldn’t possibly help them all,” he said.

On set Letters From Home. Photo by Megpix.

“Letters from Home” is one of the most compelling first-hand account storytelling of war and its horrors, one can see it portrayed on stage by a surviving family member of the Khmer Rouge regime which killed over 2 million people in the 4 years of its reign of terror. Not every survivor has the courage to learn and tell the story to the world, Kalean Ung is an extraordinary storyteller and playwright. With the artistic blood from her father, she packed the complex story of her father and mother who met in New York to the horror of the news they received from back home, to the journey in rescuing their surviving relatives to America, and the journey of making this play which also involves new music piece written by her father which she played while singing a soprano.

Her father, Dr. Chinary Ung is Distinguished Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego. He composed orchestral music which has been adapted to many symphonies throughout the United States and abroad, a world known to few Cambodians. The tale of Cambodian history, family love, the loss and pain, told in a form of art for the world to see is a type of work that gives dignity to those who died and survived the genocide.

On set Letters From Home. Photo by Megpix

Merrimack Repertory Theatre has done an outstanding job creating the stage, the visual decoration and sound. The story comes to life in a non-stop 90 minutes performance by a one-woman show. It is truly powerful and moving. Artistic Executive Director Courtney Sale said, “it exceeded every expectation. The artistic quality is incredible and it’s a vehicle for deep community outreach, it amplifies and lifts our Cambodian community”.

The post discussion was led by the only Cambodian woman State Representative Vanna Howard with Dr. Chinary Ung and Actress/Playwright Kalean Ung. She told the Khmer Post USA that, “what a powerful, powerful play. I am so grateful that the play is here for the first time, in Lowell, Massachusetts where the second largest of Cambodian community lives here. Her family refugee story resonates with all of us.”

Vannak Thang, President of Cambodian Mutual Association said, “it was very emotional for me. Having lived through that and to hear the story. I think it’s a great education for the children and those who didn’t know what happened in Cambodia during the Pol Pot regime.”

Lowell community member Amy Pessia said, “the show was riveting. Every time I hear someone recounts their experience, in this case in a form of letters of heartbreaks, it is so impactful to me as a member of this community where so many of my Cambodian friends live. This actress is so talented.”

The performance is going on at Merrimack Repertory Theatre until February 5th. Kalean will return to her home where she teaches the Theatre School at California Institute of the Arts.