Watching the opening night of David Henry Hwang's Golden Child at Seattle Repertory Theatre, I was struck by how the Asian-themed plays or musicals that come easily to mind all share the same theme. From King and I to Pacific Overtures, Flower Drum Song to M. Butterfly, Joy Luck Club to Golden Child, all deal with the conflict of East versus West. In a way, I suppose this is understandable: all stories are based on change, and nothing is more dramatic, nor a bigger example of change, than coming into contact with an alien culture.
Golden Child, which was nominated for a Tony in 1998 after a short run on Broadway, is a memory piece, partly inspired by David Henry Hwang's great-grandmother, who converted to Christianity at the turn of the century. The play tells the tale of Eng Ahn, a character who is both the spirit of an old grandmother come back to teach us her history and the child she once was. Her father, the lord of a small village, is returning home after spending three years in the Philippines, where he worked to earn the money needed to support the village. She is the daughter of First Wife, who rules the household and tries to maintain peace between Second and Third Wives. This is usually done through an opium induced haze, necessary to block out all feelings and provide armor against the constant verbal attacks and needlings these three women inflict on each other. The wives are warriors of words, each vying for control over their own corner of the world. The pressures and the attacks escalate when their husband returns, 'corrupted' by the modern world and bearing an interest in Christianity, which threatens to bring about the end of their world, beliefs, and status as wives.
James Saito is marvelous as the husband, Eng Tieng-Bin, capturing the conflict of a man who desperately wants freedom from a culture that worships the past, where there is no room for individuality, and where one's role has been codified for millennia. While his heart belongs to Third Wife, played by Grace Hsu, the first woman he has been allowed to love and choose as a wife, it's hard for us to pick the best wife, as each are incredibly strong. Grace Hsu is wonderful as the wife with the least status, due to her 'pecking order,' and to her peasant background. Her struggles to become the modern woman that her husband desires are doomed to failure, since at heart, she is the most traditionally minded of the three. Karen Tsen Lee brings some surprisingly sympathetic moments to Second Wife, Eng Luan, a woman who is utterly ruthless and calculating, and thus the most likely to survive. Kim Miyori, as First Wife Eng Siu-Yong gives a powerful performance as a woman who's role and status is under attack, and who's rules and traditions are not strong enough weapons.
Julienne Hanzelka Kim carries the show as the title character, the Golden Child Eng Ahn. A veteran of the original Broadway cast, where she played Third Wife, Julienne gives a subtle, humorous, and magical performance with her lightning quick changes from geriatric wisdom to a child's shrewdness.
Sharon Ott, the artistic director of the Seattle Repertory Theatre, does a marvelous job. No stranger to Asian theatre, as she has extensively supported and developed work by Asian playwrights and toured productions throughout Japan, she incorporated elements from Chinese opera, dance, architecture and art, which made the encroachment of the West all the more jarring and foreign. Loy Arcenas created a beautiful and intense set which looked part temple, part tomb. Lydia Tanji's costumes were gorgeous and captured the battle of East and West perfectly by contrasting the elegant, simple lines of Chinese fashion with all that is harsh and garish in Western clothing.
Overall, the play is very satisfying as it finds a balance between humor, cutting bitchiness, and the tragedy of losing one's culture and identity. Golden Child does have a few mis-steps, however. It is bookended by two incredibly weak scenes which provide a stilted concept: the grandson of Eng Ahn is visited by the spirit of his grandmother, who tells him her story, granting him a greater understanding of his ancestors and their ways, and the fact that they are with him always. It is an unwieldy and ineffective device, since we do not learn enough about him to care for him. Thus, his pontification on ancestors at the end of the show feels tacked on and artificial. A better choice would have been to have Eng Ahn start the show as the grandmother, treat all of us as her grandchildren, and tell us the story of her life and the importance of ancestors. This would have maintained the best part of the show, the transitions the actress makes from grandmother to child, while making a more believable framework with a character we have grown to love.
Golden Child runs through October 30th. For reservations, call the box office at (206) 443-2222. For more information, visit their website at www.seattlerep.org.