By Jason DiMedio

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The immigrant experience takes center stage at Merrimack Repertory Theater, as the 2014-2015 season kicks off with Year Zero. Directed by Kyle Fabel, the play explores how the identity crisis of the American immigrant is exacerbated by the violence of the Cambodian genocide even for Cambodian Americans a generation removed from the conflict.

Vuthy, a nerdy teenager growing up in Long Beach, Calif., juggles problems at school with grief over his mom’s death. His sister Ra returns from Berkeley to pack up the house. Despite Vuthy’s pleas, she refuses to take him in permanently. Meanwhile Ra’s former boyfriend Han–a neighbor of the family since childhood–returns from prison and sets out to pay back a debt to Vuthy’s and Ra’s mother for her generosity. The three immigrants process grief both personal and historical, as the late matriarch’s legacy intertwines with the trauma of the Cambodian genocide.

The set is a hyper-realistic apartment with drawings hanging on the fridge and a chorus of figurines lining the walls. Paintings on canvas representing Vuthy’s artwork surround the stage with scenes of Vuthy’s travels to Cambodia and his home life. Whenever a scene leaves the apartment, the paintings converge in different combinations to form unique backdrops. This is an innovation of scenic designer Randall Parsons whose insight enhances the meaning by literally bringing Vuthy’s artwork to the forefront.

Daniel Velasco captures Vuthy’s struggle to find an authentic voice, fusing the dialects of comic books, fantasy, hip hop and urban culture with a satisfying fluency. Juliette Hing-Lee embodies Ra’s strength and vulnerability. Her no-nonsense authority melts without a word when she packs her mother’s figurines into boxes with heartbreaking stiffness. Michael Rosete tucks vulnerability inside the swagger of the gangster Han. And as Ra’s Chinese American boyfriend Glenn, Arthur Keng channels a clinical optimism. The performances of Rosete and Keng each represent a different possibility for young immigrants: fall in line with the American dream or struggle against it.

Playwright Michael Golamco weaves complex themes into a simple, relatable story. The most important is the problem of identity. Code-switching, in all its comical awkwardness, evokes a sense of cultural wandering. The play features Vuthy’s interest in pop culture and comic books, but it’s hard not to see Hamlet whenever he holds up a skull, which is also a notorious symbol from the violence at Choeung Ek. Vuthy’s struggle — at the vortex of high and low and Eastern and Western cultures — has implications for all immigrants searching for a voice in a new cultural setting.

MRT deserves credit for producing a play that’s so relevant to Lowell’s Southeast Asian and arts community, but the play should appeal to anyone looking for a story with emotional depth interweaved with just the right amount of comedy.

  Year Zero runs through October 5. Click here for showtimes and tickets.

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