Milwaukee Rep Opens World Premiere Wisconsin with Heart-Filled Play

Nicole Javier and Narea Kang in The Heart Sellers. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

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It’s hard to imagine a better beginning for World Premiere Wisconsin than Milwaukee Rep’s just-opened production of Lloyd Suh’s The Heart Sellers, running through March 19.

Alongside Door County’s Northern Sky Theater and Madison’s Forward Theater Company, Milwaukee Rep is one of WPW’s three lead producing theaters for a reason: Milwaukee Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements’ passion for new plays. It’s hard to recall a single one of our scores of conversations – dating back to Clements’ arrival in Milwaukee nearly 15 years ago – in which producing new plays didn’t get discussed.

Long before it became fashionable, Clements and Milwaukee Rep were also demonstrating a consistent commitment to staging plays by global majority playwrights, in a city where 90 percent of plays produced by its six Equity companies between 2010 and 2020 were by white playwrights.

In the past year alone, Milwaukee Rep has staged four world premieres by global majority playwrights, including Suh’s new play; it also staged the second U.S. production of Suh’s The Chinese Lady in 2019.

The Chinese Lady had told the story of Afong Moy, the first female Chinese immigrant to America. Her moving chronicle of the changes she witnessed in her adopted country as well as herself asked hard questions about the ways an immigrant sees and is (un)seen, in a country more apt to bury her history than engage it.

While it jumps one century forward to the 1970s and initially resembles a classic sitcom from the same era – right down to the mustard-colored appliances and shag carpet on Tanya Orellana’ pitch-perfect set – The Heart Sellers explores similar themes involving what it means to be strangers in a strange land.

It’s 1973. Luna (Nicole Javier) is from the Philippines; Jane (Narea Kang) is from South Korea. They’re in the United States at all because U.S. immigration law has recently eliminated racial quotas, allowing their workaholic husbands to become residents at a local hospital.

The title of Suh’s play puns on that legal change – the 1965 Hart-Celler Act – to explore all the ways these two lonely women feel after they themselves have sold their hearts and mortgaged their futures for the American Dream and its frequently empty promises.

Alone in Luna’s kitchen on Thanksgiving as they try to puzzle out how to cook a frozen turkey, Luna and an initially wary Jane gradually thaw out themselves, copping to how lonely they are, how much they resent their continually absent husbands, and all they miss from home.

Caught betwixt and between, Luna and Jane intuitively know that they can never truly go back home again – just as they simultaneously suspect they’ll never truly belong in this strange new world where everything, even the dust and the rain, looks and smells different.

All of which can actually be quite funny, especially in the early going; the opening night audience was often laughing so hard that at one point Javier and Kang nearly broke character. As Suh understands, what’s strange and new is often funny, especially when it’s helped along by the wine these women drink alone, together.

But under Jennifer Chang’s outstanding direction, one also hears the sounds of a vast underlying silence: the nearly Pinteresque gaps in fractured dialogue where so many sentences aren’t finished and so much goes unsaid. Long before Luna’s first of two pleas to change the subject lest she cry, Suh’s script offers a minefield of evasions, of the sort separating both women from fully expressing who they really are.

In less than two hours in this intermission-free play, Luna and Jane nevertheless manage to tip-toe their way to the other side, coming into fuller versions of themselves by learning to see and help each other.

Recalling a scene in Suh’s The Far Country set at the infamous Angel Island immigration detention center, Luna opens up to offer a wrenching aria in which she imagines selling her heart to a customs official as the price of entry to America (set in the early 20th century, The Far Country unfolds between The Chinese Lady and The Heart Sellers; one might see the three plays as a triptych, while rooting for Milwaukee Rep to bring The Far Country here).

And in one of the best soliloquies I’ve seen on stage anywhere this year, Kang’s Jane invokes her dreams of being a painter to sketch a future where everything the two women dream becomes real, in a land where they can revise the history they’ve inherited into a herstory they can inhabit.

Which, to return to where I began in this post, is exactly how things should be in the first World Premiere Wisconsin play. New plays like The Heart Sellers – for which I predict a very bright future – don’t just reshape the dramatic canon. They revise the stories through which we tell ourselves what sort of country we are – and all we could yet become, together.

The Heart Sellers continues through March 19 at Milwaukee Rep’s Stiemke Studio, 108 E. Wells St., Milwaukee. For tickets, go to

Mike Fischer wrote theater and book reviews for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for fifteen years, serving as chief theater critic from 2009-18. A member of the Advisory Company of Artists for Forward Theater Company in Madison, he also co-hosts Theater Forward, a bimonthly podcast. You can reach him directly at

World Premiere Wisconsin (WPW) is an inaugural statewide festival celebrating new plays and musicals from March 1 – June 30, 2023, presented by the Ten Chimneys Foundation. Spearheaded by the leadership of Forward Theater Company of Madison, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, and Northern Sky Theater of Door County, WPW was conceived with four primary goals in mind: to build relationships between Wisconsin theater makers, to raise national awareness about Wisconsin’s thriving and diverse theater ecosystem, to encourage the production of new work, and to communicate a positive story about theater making in Wisconsin during this critical phase of recovery and rebuilding. From the tip of Door County to the state line, WPW is a bold idea, locally brewed with pride right here in our great state. For more information, visit:

Mike’s work as WPW’s Festival Reporter is part of an ongoing series called "WPW Backstage," to be published on WPW's website and elsewhere throughout the festival and made possible through the sponsorship of the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF). Learn more:

1. Lisa Helmi Johanson in The Chinese Lady. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
2. Narea Kang and Nicole Javier in
The Heart Sellers. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
3. Playwright Lloyd Suh.