“The Heart Sellers” (2023), a new play by Lloyd Suh, takes place in 1973, but its story feels just as relevant today. Following a world premiere at the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre in February, it’s playing now through Dec. 23 at the Calderwood Pavilion in Boston. Under the direction of May Adrales, the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “The Heart Sellers” tackles immigration, marriage and the joy of friendship in a refreshingly honest way.
Out on a shopping trip on Thanksgiving, young housewife Luna (Jenna Agbayani) sees another woman wearing a matching jacket and decides to invite the woman over to her apartment. While their conversation is slow and stilted at first, Luna and Jane (Judy Song) soon discover that they have a lot more in common than their jackets. They’re both recent immigrants to America — Luna from the Philippines, Jane from Korea — and they’re feeling a little lonely with their busy husbands at work during the day. Through an evening of deep conversation and emotional bonding, the two strangers quickly become friends.
Agbayani’s charisma is immediately infectious, while Song’s Jane takes a little while to warm up. Luna bombards Jane with questions about her family, her social life and her first impressions of America, but Jane, who struggles to understand Luna’s English, stays quiet. When Luna reveals that she needs to cook a turkey in time for dinner, Jane finally speaks up — she’s been watching lots of Julia Child on TV, and she knows exactly what to do. Or at least she would, if the turkey wasn’t frozen solid.
Throughout the evening, Luna’s enthusiasm rubs off on Jane, and the two form a bond as they discuss their shared feelings of isolation, their memories of their home countries and their hopes for the future. Laughter turns to sadness, and then laughter again, in an emotionally charged conversation that explores the challenges of fitting in. Agbayani’s bubbly energy and impressive physicality bolsters the play’s momentum through its slower initial scenes, and her seemingly endless supply of wine keeps the conversation flowing. Song, meanwhile, displays incredible range in her performance, transforming from a timid housewife into an outspoken young woman excited to seize any opportunity that comes her way. The pair’s chemistry and comedic timing is admirable, and when one of them bursts into laughter, you can’t help but laugh along with them.
Suh’s dialogue feels truly authentic and his story is wonderfully intimate, almost inviting the audience into the room with Luna and Jane. The one-act play never leaves the confines of Luna’s apartment and takes place entirely in real time, allowing the characters to grow organically over the course of the play. Suh has a knack for writing powerful monologues that express the complexity of the women’s situations as they struggle to adjust to their new homes — caught between two worlds, they don’t quite feel at home in either of them.
The title of the play is derived from the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, a landmark immigration law that allowed more Asian families to come to America. Less than a decade after its passage, Luna and Jane reflect on how the law has changed their lives, for better or worse. The play’s designs effectively communicate the 1970s setting, with music that reflects the time period and snippets of radio coverage that describe the ongoing Watergate scandal. Scenic and costume designer Junghyun Georgia Lee’s attention to detail adds to the ’70s environment, filling Luna’s apartment with yellows and browns that evoke the play’s retro aesthetic. The entire set is enclosed in a box and elevated several feet off the ground, which helps to physically capture Luna and Jane’s feelings of isolation. May Adrales’ intimate direction elevates Agbayani and Song’s performances, making each onstage interaction feel truly authentic.
Luna and Jane have big dreams — they want to go to the movies together, visit a nightclub and maybe even travel to Disneyland. The Thanksgiving holiday keeps them inside for the day, but that doesn’t stop them from making plans for the future. In a powerful final monologue, Jane describes the adventures that a day in their future lives might contain, and by the end of the play, it’s clear that the women have formed a powerful bond that is meant to last.