Bald Sisters, Vichet Chum’s at turns hilarious and moving new play, is enjoying a perfectly cast world-premiere production at Steppenwolf Theatre, which opened on December 11. Running a tight hour and 40 minutes with no intermission, this story of two estranged Cambodian refugees coming together in Texas after the death of their mother draws its humor and insights about family and the human condition from the complex interactions of five well-defined characters.

There’s Ma, played with gusto by Wai Ching Ho, the mother who fled the killing fields of Cambodia with her two daughters and made a good life for them in America. Ma is the elder who has seen the worst of life and now shares blunt advice for and assessments of her daughters that deliver some of the show’s biggest laughs. Chum is such a sure-footed writer that he has her say at one point that little old Asian ladies get away with being outspoken because “Americans think we’re cute.”

There’s Seth, the Syrian refugee college student who cuts the grass at the family’s home, essayed by the sly Nima Rakhshanifar, who may be every bit the match for Ma in terms of both truth-telling and humor.

The titular bald sisters–Him, who lost her hair via chemo, and Sophea, who has shaved her head as a nod to Ma’s Buddhism–are the dynamic core of the show. Him, played with naturalistic precision by Jennifer Lim as the stoic older child who still remembers the Khmer Rouge camps, can’t believe the ongoing immaturity of kid sibling Sophea–portrayed with boundless energy, wit and intelligence by Francesca Fernandez McKenzie.

And there’s Nate, Him’s laid-back pastor husband, nimbly played by Coburn Goss as a cultural outsider with a surprising number of useful insights, as well as plenty of his own emotional baggage.

Him and Sophea constantly dance around each other and negotiate their very different relationships with Ma in a series of flashbacks. (McKenzie’s performance is so kinetic, in fact, that she does a full 360 around the chair in which Him is getting her latest chemo infusion, momentarily breaking the illusion because there would be tubes to trip over at some point on that journey.) As they spar over Ma’s funeral arrangements, they essay sisterly conflicts both universal and specific to the refugee experience. In maybe the funniest line of the play, Seth tells Sophea, who is upset by everyone treating her like a baby, that maybe it would help if she stopped acting like one, adding, “My little sister is as shitty as you.”

It’s tough stuff from which to mine comedy–genocides in Cambodia and Syria, problematic pregnancies, deep sibling rivalry and midlife marital reassessments–but Chum’s stellar script leaves the audience feeling like it’s in the best possible hands. He’s such a top-notch playwright that he’s able to segue seamlessly between one of the most emotional moments between the sisters into what I will vaguely describe as a surprising moment of joyful audience interaction so as not to spoil your fun.

The biggest headline from this world premiere is that Vichet Chum has all the makings of a major playwright. We should be hearing a lot more from him in the years ahead. I very much look forward to that.

Bald Sisters runs through January 15 at Steppenwolf Theatre.

Photo by Michael Brosilow