Would-be parents, beware. In her compelling new play, Satellites, Diana Son does not paint a pretty picture of the transition to parenthood. A scant six weeks after a tumultuous C-section, Nina (Sandra Oh) feels that she should be ready to work, but is she really? Sitting alone in her home office, she hears her daughter Hannah crying upstairs, and her conflict is palpable—painful, raw, even "feral," as she describes it. But Nina's life and career must go on, baby or no baby, for reasons both financial and personal: she and her husband Miles (Kevin Carroll) have just moved into a four-story Brooklyn brownstone (a definite fixer-upper); Miles, a dot-com producer, is out of work but under pressure by his nomadic and irresponsible brother Eric (Clarke Thorell) to embark on a sketchy business venture; and her friend and business partner Kit (Johanna Day) is begging her to pick up the slack at their architectural firm.
Directed with fluidity and grace by Michael Greif, Satellites raises important questions about the problematic position of a working mother (to work, or not to work? And at what cost?). Son, whose work first rose to prominence with the widespread success and popularity of her 1998 play Stop Kiss (also produced by the Public Theater and starring Oh), recently became a mother herself, and she has duly investigated the fractious activity of childbearing and its resulting identity crises. But within the tidy span of 90 minutes, she also manages to sharply chronicle the manifold ways the birth of a child affects the extended group of people who surround (or orbit) it. And as Nina and Miles attempt to adjust to both their new roles as parents and their new geographical location, they are also confronted by their own racial identities, and lack thereof.
Although neither Nina, who is Korean, nor Miles, who is African-American, feels particularly connected to his or her own roots, they are determined to forge meaningful connections for their daughter. Nina hires a Korean nanny, Mrs. Chae (Satya Lee), hoping that Hannah might learn to speak Korean, while their move to a predominantly black neighborhood is an attempt to give Hannah another opportunity for self-identification.
Their choices quickly crumble around them, however, illustrating the difficulty of manufacturing a specific cultural experience for, well, anyone. Soon after they move in, a rock is thrown through their front window. Whether or not the act was racially motivated, it threatens their faith in themselves, driving each of them to seek a sense of belonging elsewhere.
Nina, whose own mother is dead, begins to gravitate toward Mrs. Chae, and a look of longing crosses her face as Mrs. Chae sings a familiar Korean lullaby to Hannah. Miles, in turn, strikes up an unwilling relationship with Reggie (Ron Cephas Jones), the "king of the block," whose streetwise wheeling and dealing lands him, oddly enough, at the center of their household renovations. However, both Nina and Miles are just as quick to avoid identifying too closely with their new acquaintances, especially when Nina discovers Mrs. Chae's ignorance and Miles begins to doubt Reggie's honesty.
Clearly, there is much (and sometimes a little too much) going on here, but if Son's script is somewhat overburdened with detail, it's hard to complain about in a production that is so uniformly well acted, conscientiously envisioned, and brimming with smarts. Son's characters are so thoughtfully drawn that even a weaker, quasi-romantic subplot between Kit and Eric becomes intriguing.
On hiatus from her Golden Globe-winning role in TV's Grey's Anatomy, Oh shows her theatrical prowess here, vividly depicting Nina's conflict as she alternates between strength and vulnerability. Carroll adeptly harnesses Miles's uncertainty and fear, while Ron Cephas Jones strikes the perfect balance (equal parts irritating and irresistible) as the swaggering Reggie. Day is a vibrant addition as the smart and snappy Kit, who is turning 40 and wishes Nina would pay more attention to her "baby," their work.
Designer Mark Wendland's set is a Brooklyn brownstone to build a dream on, an unfinished apartment with a gorgeous staircase and a bright, colorful studio. The sets glide swiftly along tracks as they shift us and the characters through different rooms, and Greif gives us glimpses of the actors moving through different spaces as the scenes evolve, underscoring their search for a quiet, stable place to sit down in relative peace.
Satellites is also a study of geography, both that of ourselves and our property—how ownership changes in a neighborhood, for one thing, as well as what (if anything) we have to pass down as human beings. Nina fears that Hannah "will never see herself—she will never see me." Within this Brooklyn brownstone, relationships and expectations across race and class are thwarted and distorted. Although these characters may seem to move in parallel orbits, their lives inevitably intersect, provoking arguments and encounters that are both painful and edifying.