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A Cambodian family’s saga emerges piece by piece in ‘Letters from Home’

Kalean Ung shown in rehearsal for "Letters From Home" at Merrimack Repertory Theatre.Meg Moore

LOWELL — Playwright and performer Kalean Ung began working on “Letters from Home” as an exploration of a family history she had heard only in whispers and secrets.

“In 2016, conversations around refugees and immigration made me want to ask my father about his experience,” Ung says ahead of her show’s run at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Her father, Chinary Ung, a successful composer and professor of composition at the University of California San Diego, left Cambodia to study music in the United States just before the Khmer Rouge regime decimated his country.

The solo performance combines Ung’s discovery of her family’s loss with her father’s expressive music as she pieces together the fragments of their existence.

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Ung grew up in a biracial, artistic family, and has been active in West Coast theaters, gaining attention and acclaim for her performances as Shakespearean women. It wasn’t until she started thinking about telling her own story that she began asking questions and discovered the letters that revealed how active her father had been in helping family and friends emigrate.

“I was born in 1986, so I wasn’t really aware of my father’s activities,” says Ung, “but he stepped away from composing for 11 years [1974-85] to focus on helping Cambodians.” He also worked to raise awareness of traditional Cambodian music and art forms by performing with Cambodian ensembles throughout the United States.

Reading letters filled with heartfelt and sometimes desperate pleas, Ung began thinking about privilege and responsibility, and how art can help heal the trauma of a previous generation.

“When I was ready to turn the piece from a ‘purge’ to a play, I reached out to my friend and fellow CalArts grad, Marina McClure,” Ung says. “I thought the play was about the letters, but my father reminded me that art is an expression of humanity, not a documentary.”

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“It was fascinating to listen to conversations between this father and daughter, both master artists of their crafts,” says McClure, who is directing “Letters from Home.” “Musical composition has so much to share in the theatrical space. It was exciting to find opportunities to weave them together.”

The biggest shift, says McClure, was helping move Ung from the letters to the people who wrote them.

“Kalean uses the same skills when she is portraying one of Shakespeare’s queens as she is when she brings these stories to life,” says McClure.

“Playing Shakespeare’s women is home for me in many ways,” says Ung. “I channel their humanity, their grief, through those stories. But I think I recognized their emotional experience was really part of my own.”

McClure and Ung say the piece has grown and changed as Ung has performed it. For this production at Merrimack Rep, both say the set has become a scene partner to Ung, helping to build a sense of time and place and helping those letters come alive.

The production team includes Mark Kanieff (scenic designer), Yao Chen (costume designer), Kennis Yin-Mor (traditional costume consultant), Chu-Hsuan Chang (lighting designer), Chris Porter (sound design), and Hsuan-Kuan Hsieh (video projection designer). But the heartbeat of the show, says McClure, is the sound that provides rhythm and movement to the text.

“Her father’s music pushes her through the play,” says McClure. “Although the story starts with these letters, these fragments of her family history, Chinary’s music feeds her thinking, helps her uncover ideas and emotions.”

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McClure says Ung’s father gave them access to his entire catalog.

“Chinary writes contemporary music informed by the sounds of his homeland,” says McClure. “One of his most famous pieces is called ‘Spiral,’ which becomes an important symbol in Kalean’s effort to understand her family’s history.”

She and Ung worked with sound designer Porter to create motifs that serve the play’s dramatic arc.

“Every time I perform ‘Letters from Home,’ I find new layers to explore,” says Ung. “It’s my family’s story, but it’s a story so many other families from so many other countries will recognize.”

LETTERS FROM HOME

Presented by Merrimack Repertory Theatre. At Nancy L. Donahue Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell. Through Feb. 5. Tickets $15-$65. 978-654-4678, www.mrt.org

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.