Hwang mines familiar territory in family drama / by R. Sheth

March 15, 2007
By Barbara Vitello
Daily Herald Critic at Large

Golden Child, by David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) offers more than a quaint family history, but nothing we haven't seen before.

His great-grandfather's conversion to Christianity and its impact on his three wives and oldest daughter inspired the play, currently in its Midwest premiere at Chicago's Silk Road Theatre Project, a company that showcases works by Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean playwrights.

An interesting, if not especially revelatory examination of progress and the terrible price it exacts, Golden Child is more tart and less lyrical than Nilo Cruz's Anna in the Tropics, which also addresses the clash between modern attitudes and traditional values.

Set in China during the early 20th century, Hwang's entertaining, often provocative tale centers on patriarch Tien-Bin (Vic Chao), a forward-thinking man flirting with Christianity and modern values who remains a dutiful son trapped by ancient traditions.

"To be Chinese is to feel the weight of obligation going back 5,000 years," he says. Chao's earnest, painful performance reflects the strain that results from carrying that burden, while still struggling to move forward.The disarming Tiffany Villarin plays Tien's beloved third wife Eling. Worried that embracing the modern means rejecting her heritage, Eling reluctantly adopts her husband's new religion and Western values but finds it difficult to reconcile the East-West collide.

Melissa Kong, plays Tien's daughter Ahn, the titular golden child who reaps the benefits of her father's conversion. Not everyone fares as well.

SRTP's production features sly comedic turns by Cheryl Hamada, commanding as Tien's dogmatic first wife, Siu-Yong, and Kimberlee Soo as his opportunistic second wife, Luan.

Some of the play's best, most sardonic lines go to Hamada, who delivers them with razor-sharp precision. Soo is also very good as the smart, manipulative Luan, whose ability to adapt will serve her well in the modern world.

The show looks great thanks to Carol J. Blanchard's sumptuous costumes and Lee Keenan's set dominated by three bedchambers and illuminated paper lanterns. The play has a few weak spots: it mines no new ground, its first act drags in spots and its two-dimensional characters exist as types.

However, SRTP's production under director Stuart Carden, contains some wonderful moments: the deliciously caustic domestic intrigue as the three wives vie for their husband's favor; the tense lead-in to the radical unbinding of Ahn's feet chillingly realized with a blaze of light accompanied by a piercing scream and Tien's agony as he wrenches his family into the 20th century.

2 1/2 stars

out of four

Rating: Suitable for teens and older