March 21, 2007
By Scott C. Morgan
Change can be both painful and beneficial. This proves literally true in David Henry Hwang's Obie Award-winning 1998 historical drama Golden Child, now being presented by the Silk Road Theater Project.
Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent as when wealthy Chinese merchant Eng Tieng-Bin orders the foot bindings to be removed off the feet of his favorite daughter, Ahn. Her screams of pain make you wince, even though this clever "Golden Child" asked to remove the bindings herself. Yet it's all for the best, since we know by 1918 (when the play is largely set) that the torturous centuries-old Chinese tradition of shrinking women's feet is already out of date.
There's even more drastic change as Tieng-Bin starts contemplating a conversion to Christianity, much to the initial chagrin of his three wives. Lest you think Golden Child is a proselytizing play glorifying Christianity, it's clear that Tieng-Bin really converts because the religion is an available symbol of Western individualism. Moreover, the differing ways each of Tieng-Bin's wives go about jockeying for power amid so much upheaval makes for fascinating and insightful drama.
Director Stuart Carden has assembled a strong cast and he guides them through the Eastern formalities we're not accustomed to (like the endless deference to ancestors and apologizing for compliments). The production is also something to look at with Carol J. Blanchard's great costumes and Lee Keenan's set design, which beautifully conjures up a Chinese past with multitudes of bright red lanterns and three monolithic beds (each symbolizing each wives' inner sanctums and strategizing base) .
Vic Chao brings an earnest quality to Tieng-Bin's conflicts over tossing aside Chinese traditions in favor of Western ideals, while Melissa Kong (as narrator Ahn) brings plenty of spunk and cheeky humor to the dual young-and-elderly role.
Watching the three wives is also a great delight. Cheryl Hamada gets the haughty authority of First wife Siu-Young just right, while the wily scheming of Second wife Luan is deliciously played by Kimberlee Soo. Tiffany Villarin plays Tieng-Bin's beloved third wife with the right amount of submissiveness, showing that she might not be as fully adaptable as her husband would like.
Rounding out the strong cast is Kevin Kenneally as the affable (and opportunistic) Brit Rev. Anthony Baines.
My only disappointment with the production is that some dramatic moments could be played with more intensity and anger. At the opening performance, a key confrontation between Tieng-Bin and his first wife could have been kicked into a higher gear.
Why it took so long for a professional production of Golden Child to reach Chicago is baffling, given the dramatic richness and cultural insights of the play. Silk Road Theatre Project's beautiful and well-acted production shows what Chicago has been missing.