Desperately in love, a man and a woman dance and dream of a world in which it would be possible to belong to each other exclusively. No, it's not "West Side Story." The couple is Chinese; the year is 1918. They live in a southeast province of China, and they are married. But the man, Tieng-Bin (Stan Egi), has two other wives besides the lovely Eling (Liana Pai). To have one wife would be to go against the natural order.
David Henry Hwang offers many such unexpected and finely imagined details in his new play, "Golden Child," the story of a family and a culture struggling to change, and finding that the past clings painfully in the process. "Golden Child" is a co-production of the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, where it premiered in November, and South Coast Repertory, which commissioned the play and where it opened Saturday night.
South Coast got the better deal. After seeing the play at the Public (where it got mixed reviews), Hwang has improved it--if not miraculously, than at least discernibly. He has added cogency to the short framing scenes that begin and end the story, and several other key scenes are clearer and stronger.
As a result, "Golden Child" is more riveting and more moving, though it continues to suffer in part from over-explanation. Also, the contemporary scenes through which we enter and exit the story (an ambivalent, expectant father, Egi, is visited by his dead grandmother, who teaches him the value of fatherhood through her stories) still retain a pat quality; they whisper "device." But they also provide a fascinating young actress named Julyana Soelistyo with a chance to transform brilliantly, sans makeup, from an old woman to a young girl with only a change of posture and voice tone.
In the main story, Tieng-Bin returns home from a three-year business trip in the Philippines. He brings with him a missionary, the Rev. Baines (John Christopher Jones), a man eager to bring Jesus to the entire village. To Tieng-Bin, the old ways now seem wrong. Foot-binding, which he has come to see as disgusting, already has begun for his young daughter Ahn (Soelistyo).
And negotiating the complicated power struggles in a household with three wives--the bitchy, older Siu-Yong (Tsai Chin), addicted to opium and the old ways; scheming Luan (Jodi Long); and the beloved Eling--is a burden. Tieng-Bin longs for a more sensible, streamlined existence, which Western ways seem to offer, but he cannot imagine what the cost will be.
The great irony, not lost on the older wives, is that Tieng-Bin must act the fascist in order to force Christianity on the household.
Hwang's larger theme, beyond the importance of knowing the past, is that change is not an organic process, but occurs only at great cost, with human beings kicking and screaming the whole way. When he demands that Ahn's foot bandages be removed, Tieng-Bin faces bitter resistance from Ahn's mother, the fierce Siu-Yong. The removal process (one of the great improvements in the play) is agony for Ahn, though she is grateful for it her whole life. In this scene as rewritten, Hwang has found his central metaphor.
The intricate infighting between three women trained in the language of submission is more layered now, thanks also to the sure-handed direction of James Lapine. Even Tony Straiges' graceful set--showing the three wheat-colored pagodas of the three wives--and the lovely silk robes the women wear, in shades of crimson, jade and pale lilac (designed by Martin Pakledinaz), look more intense on the South Coast stage under David J. Lander's lighting.
Soelistyo performs a second amazing transformation in a scene in which young Ahn, hoping to scare her mother's enemy, pretends to be the ghost of Luan's grandmother. Holding up a lantern, she seems to grow in stature, and her voice finds adult resonance. Once found out by her would-be victim, Ahn finds a high-pitched outlet for her fear in her now girlish voice. Clearly, this is an actress to watch.
As Ahn's mother, Chin shows how an ostensibly submissive Chinese woman can be as acerbic as Dorothy Parker. Her descent into opium addiction is quite harrowing. Pai (the daughter in "The Woman Warrior") is elegant, if a touch too wimpy. As the play's best schemer, Long can be formidable.
Jones taps the right well-fed fatuousness for the reverend. Egi's patriarch is likable and also funny, but he is missing a certain fire in the belly that would be necessary for so strong-willed a man.
Despite some bumps in the road, "Golden Child" has acquired a real luster on its voyage to the West Coast. When the elder Ahn comes to visit her grandson in the dead of night, bearing a Jesus tote bag and a Christian idea about being born again, her grandson translates her message into something that transcends all religion. By imagining the life of his great-grandfather, he realizes that he too will be reborn in the minds of his own descendants. In this deeply felt work, Hwang has shown clearly how that simple miracle works.
* "Golden Child," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 9. $28-$41. (714) 957-4033. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Stan Egi: Andrew Kwong/Eng Tieng-Bin
Julyana Soelistyo: Eng Ahn
Tsai Chin: Eng Siu-Yong, first wife
Jodi Long: Eng Luan, second wife
Liana Pai: Eng Eling, third wife
John Christopher Jones: The Rev. Baines
A South Coast Repertory production in association with the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival. By David Henry Hwang. Directed by James Lapine. Sets Tony Straiges. Costumes Martin Pakledinaz. Lights David J. Lander. Sound Dan Moses Schreier. Production manager Michael Mora. Production stage manager Scott Harrison.