Vi Tran has one hell of a story to tell — and he tells it in exacting detail in “The Butcher’s Son.”
This show, directed by Mackenzie Goodwin, is a sort of reader’s theater/pop musical hybrid in which Tran relates in dramatic scenes, prose narration and songs the story of his family’s struggle to escape the communist regime after the Vietnam War and journey to a new home in America.
It’s a dramatic tale, filled with considerable poignancy and humor, and viewers can’t help but be impressed by the courage and tenacity of Tran’s parents as they took their young son and daughter through refugee camps in Southeast Asia before finding a new home in southwestern Kansas.
The tale will strike some viewers as at once exotic and American as apple pie. Tran’s family is just one vivid example of what people have been doing since this country was founded — bucking the odds to build a better life.
Tran breaks the two-act piece into chapters but doesn’t follow a conventional linear narrative. He jumps forward and backward in time, mixing dialogue scenes with spoken narration and original songs. Tran plays himself and his father in the saga — he’s particularly effective in his evocation of his father’s affectionate and quietly gutsy persona — and receives strong support from Ai Vy Bui, who plays his mother at various ages, and Erika Crane Ricketts, who plays his sister.
Tran sometimes performs on guitar with the support of a small band, comprised of Ben Byard and Sean Hogge on guitars and violinist Jonathan Schriock. Some numbers are performed by all three actors.
At times the story becomes a nail-biting drama, particularly when the family finds itself in a Cambodian camp run by the ruthless Khmer Rouge. It appears the family will be broken up until a clever Japanese doctor from the Red Cross manipulates their captors with a happy outcome. Later, the depiction of Tran’s father’s death from cancer packs a heavy emotional punch.
But there is pungent humor as well. Tran re-creates his antics as a child performer in a Thai refugee camp and much of the intense parental pressure for the young Tran to succeed academically is played for honest laughs.
Bui is quite good as Tran’s mother, finding a way to credibly play her from a young wife in Vietnam to an American senior citizen. Ricketts demonstrates a keen sense of comic timing.
Ultimately, the show seems too long and occasionally repetitive. But then who am I to tell Tran which episodes from his family’s history to leave on the cutting room floor? He packs an amazing amount of information into his script. When he revisits this material — which he almost certainly will — he might want to look for opportunities to reshape the piece with an eye to economy and concision.
Regardless, in its current form Tran’s “performance memoir” is unique, inspiring and often moving.