Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin
San Francisco Playhouse
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's review of The Government Inspector

Jomar Tagatac, Carrie Paff, Kina Kantor,
and Sharon Shao

Photo by Jessica Palopoli
Puzzle boxes are intricately designed creations that, in order to be opened, require one to manipulate wooden panels and strips and dowels via a precise series of moves. If not done in the specific order required, the box will remain closed. The perfect place for keeping secrets. They can be both fascinating and frustrating–which neatly sums up how I feel about The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, which opened last night at San Francisco Playhouse.

Puzzle boxes came to mind in part because the set (designed by Christopher Fitzer) reminded me of one: It's a giant cube that rotates (on a turntable) to reveal multiple, smaller spaces, each of which becomes a location in playwright Jessica Huang's multi-generational tale of the long, hard road Chinese peasant Leong Cheng Yu must travel in order to become American citizen Harry Chin. Harry, played by the marvelous Jomar Tagatac, has his own puzzles to solve to make it to America and then to make it in America: detention, brutal interrogation, prejudice–all of which haunt him like the ghosts who pay their visits to Harry throughout the play. Through their recollections, Harry is forced to recognize a tragic past he might prefer to forget.

It's the ghosts that impel the action forward, even from the very first moments of the play when Harry's Buick Super starts up on its own, honking for attention. When Sheila (Kina Kantor), Harry's daughter, trudges downstairs to turn it off, it immediately starts back up again, almost as if to say "Let's go, it's time to get moving." Which is exactly what Sheila has in mind, since her father has been sleeping on her couch in the year since his wife, Sheila's mother, died, and she's been shopping apartments for him.

Ghosts abound in The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin, taking us into the past to witness the steps on Harry's perilous life journey. As Laura, the ghost of Harry's wife, Carrie Paff is almost spectral herself, moving gracefully, almost stealthily, through the space, a gentle, close-lipped smile almost always on her face, her eyes so intense you half expect them to burn a hole through whatever her gaze falls upon.

The entire cast is excellent, but ultimately it is Jomar Tagatac's performance that pulls us along, rooting for his character to find some solace or sense of peace. As the younger Harry, Tagatac speaks in an almost stereotypical pidgin English, an accent he mostly loses during scenes set in the present day. (Which, for the play, is 1970, though there is little–other than a note in the program–to indicate this to us.)

Director Jeffrey Lo is to be commended for his ability to delineate the lines between past and present, human and ghost, using sound effects and music (by sound designer Howard Ho), and subtle lighting cues (from Kurt Landisman), yet viewing The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin requires close attention–especially in the first act–in order to keep track of all the back stories that will be paid off in act two.

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin is a tough story–in part because of its subject matter, and in part because it requires perhaps too much of an audience's attention. I imagine it might be one of those shows (like Custom Made Theatre's production of Circle Mirror Transformation was for me) that takes more than one viewing to adequately unlock its pleasures.

The Paper Dreams of Harry Chin runs through June 18, 2022, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with matinees Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are $30-$100. For tickets and information, please visit or call the box office at 415-677-9596.