Memory play glows with riches of a dying culture / by R. Sheth

March 14, 2007
By Robert Loerzel

The Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang is famous for his work on M. Butterfly, Tarzan and Aida, but Golden Child is one of his most personal scripts.

Inspired by his grandmother's memories of growing up in China in the early 1900s, Golden Child is a lovely evocation of a time when ancient customs were yielding to modern ways.

The play is receiving its Midwest premiere at Chicago's Silk Road Theatre Project, which makes the leap to Equity theater with this production.

The style of acting takes a little getting used to. At first, it seems overly broad and stylized, not all that natural. But midway through the first act, when protagonist Tieng-Bin returns to China from a business trip to the Philippines and eats dinner with his three wives, the cast's big gestures and clearly enunciated lines begin to click.

The story is set in an upper-class home in China at the dawn of the 20th century, and the social structures of that time and place made it impossible for these people to speak to one another in the open, natural style that American audiences associate with contemporary domestic dramas. Everything is in code, with insults disguised as compliments and vice versa.

So it makes sense that the dialogue sounds a little stiff at times -- it reflects the story's milieu.

Vic Chao plays Tieng-Bin, a man attracted to the ways of the West, whose plans to convert to Christianity are complicated by the fact that he has three wives. Despite that conflict, Chao plays Tieng-Bin as a man who rarely sways from doing what he feels is right and decent. His openness is part of what's so radically different about him. He's the one who breaks with tradition and orders an end to the binding of girls' feet in his household.

His wives are a study in rivalry, and the three actresses bring distinct personalities to each role. First wife Siu Yong (Cheryl Hamada) struggles to uphold the old ways, while second wife Luan (Kimberlee Soo) sees her husband's romantic affections focusing more and more on his youngest and newest bride, Eling (Tiffany Villarin).

Kevin Kenneally brings winning humor to the second act, playing Baines, an English minister intent on baptizing Tieng-Bin. Of course, the scenes are all performed in English for our benefit, but when Baines speaks, he talks in short, awkward sentences designed to simulate the situation that he's really speaking in broken Chinese.

Melissa Kong is charming as Tieng-Bin's daughter Ahn, the "Golden Child" of the title, also playing the same character in the form of a ghostly grandmother decades later.

The play begins and ends with Chao playing Tieng-Bin's grandson in the modern day, feeling uncertain about becoming a parent. Those scenes are entertaining enough, but the framing story may be unnecessary. The enchanting and beautifully staged memories of old China that they prompt are reason enough to see Golden Child.