NEW YORK — Expectant mothers beware: viewing Diana Son’s new play, “Satellites,” may induce symptoms of intense panic and apprehension. Just ask its star, actress Sandra Oh, who plays a first-time mother.
“I remember one time in rehearsal after a particularly hard day I told Diana, ‘This play is birth control,'” she laughs. “It’s like boot camp … I’ve never experienced in a deep kind of exploratory, emotional way what it might be like to be tired like that, to be emotionally spent like that.”
In “Satellites,” now at the Public Theater, Oh plays Nina, a Korean architect who has just had a baby with her African-American husband, Miles (Kevin Carroll). The couple moves to Brooklyn to raise their child, hires a Korean nanny and receives a surprise visit from Miles’ adoptive white brother, all of which provides a rich canvas for exploring issues of interracial child-rearing, identity and the not-so-simple hardships of balancing work and home life.
The production is a reunion of sorts, as Carroll and Oh both starred in Son’s 1998 “Stop Kiss.” It was, in fact, Oh herself who helped inspire Nina’s character. A few years back, Son was bemoaning to Oh her difficulty in writing a new play. When Oh suggested it was because of Son’s recent motherhood, a spark was lit, and she began work on the play, always with Oh in mind — even though the actress has never had children.
“I think she can do anything,” says Son, who has known Oh since 1995. “I think that she has the unusual gift of being both clear and complicated in her portrayals, so knowing that I was writing for her just gave me the liberty to write the character in her full complexity with contradictions.”
Fans of Oh’s Dr. Cristina Yang on “Grey’s Anatomy” (for which she recently won Golden Globe and SAG awards) might note that in that show, too, she plays half of an interracial couple. It is a coincidence that hasn’t escaped the actress.
“On this television show, we’re only in the second year, going into the third year. We can talk about race eventually and I think we will. But we’re still introducing the characters, where ideas about race and things have just not come up necessarily yet,” she explains of the series’ lack of focus on interracial issues. “This play’s about really talking about what is deeply personal to individual characters, which then might speak to many people. Like, what it is to not really be close to your culture and have to really kind of create your own identity. Which I think is deeply American.”
Oh, however, hails from further north. Born in Nepean, Ontario, to Korean immigrant professionals (mom was a research scientist and dad a businessman), she had her first taste of performing when her mother enrolled her in ballet to help straighten out her pigeon-toed feet. When she realized dancing was not her destiny, her sister suggested the 10-year-old Oh audition for a school musical. She got the part and, as she puts it, “I just never stopped.”
After a few post-college years doing work in Canada, Oh, 34, moved to Los Angeles and has since attracted attention for both her comic timing and emotional vulnerability in films such as “Under the Tuscan Sun” and “Sideways” (later this summer, she will appear opposite Robin Williams in the thriller “The Night Listener”) and on the cult TV favorite “Arliss.”
Despite Oh’s success in television work, though, the tube is not her preferred medium.
“If I could just do theater and film it would be great … I would not pick television,” admits Oh, who is squeezing “Satellites” into her brief break from “Grey’s Anatomy.” “I’m saying this based on life choices. It’s very grueling. And it’s corporate. Obviously, theater is not corporate at all: ‘Woo hoo, pay me that $400 a week!'”