'Golden Child' celebrates a 'hyphenated' American

March 04, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

In a David Henry Hwang play, East is never simply East and West is never simply West. Not only do they meet, they clash, and in Hwang's newest play, "Golden Child," the future is forged out of the struggle.

"Golden Child" -- playing a pre-Broadway run at Washington's Kennedy Center -- is based on the life of Hwang's maternal grandmother, whose family converted to Christianity in China.

Lacking the edge-of-your-seat suspense that characterized "M. Butterfly" (Hwang's most famous examination of the clash between East and West), "Golden Child" returns to his frequent subject of family relations in one of the playwright's most personal works to date.

The play's patently autobiographical aspect, however, is also its weakest element. Structurally, the playwright starts and finishes the drama with scenes of his alter ego, named Andrew, in bed with his pregnant wife. The action begins when he awakes from a bad dream to find his late grandmother, Ahn, by his bedside telling him that he needs to be born again, and that as a Chinese Christian, she has "best of East, best of West."

Andrew, who admits that, as an American, he is ashamed of his ancestors, is nonetheless treated to a flashback of Ahn's Chinese girlhood when her father's fascination with the new, the modern and especially Christianity wreaked irrevocable change on his polygamous family life.

Hwang demonstrates Andrew's connection to his ancestors in a manner as theatrically effective as it is economical -- Stan Egi, the actor who plays Andrew, also plays Andrew's great-grandfather, Eng Tieng-Bin, in the flashback. Similarly, Liana Pai, who plays Andrew's wife, doubles as Tieng-Bin's third and most beloved wife, Eling.

And, in the production's loveliest performance, Julyana Soelistyo's Ahn transforms herself from a bent-over grandmother a spry young girl simply by straightening up and removing a scarf and spectacles; at both ends of the age spectrum, however, she displays the enthusiastic openness and optimism that ultimately make her the family's only true believer.

When we see the bickering and jealousy among Tieng-Bin's three wives, it's easy to understand why he's eager for the different way of life offered by a guileless missionary (John Christopher Jones), particularly since that life will allow him only one wife. Polygamy might sound tempting in theory, but in Tieng-Bin's household the first wife is constantly placed in the position of peacemaker, a role Tsai Chin conveys with the relish of a seasoned matriarch, albeit one who is addicted to opium and who tends to speak in politically incorrect aphorisms ("If you can't live with dishonesty, you have no business calling yourself a woman").

The second wife, a schemer, is the nastiest of the trio, and Midori Nakamura portrays her as a woman so blinded by self-interest that she can't see past her own schemes. Only Pai, as the young, third wife -- the sole wife who was not the result of an arranged marriage -- is an innocent, and we all know what happens to the innocent.

As much as the conflict between East and West, and old and new, "Golden Child" is about change. So it is not surprising that young Ahn -- whose mindset has not yet hardened like her old-fashioned mother, wife No. 1 -- takes to it best. Ahn's development, not Andrew's, is what makes "Golden Child" (Ahn's nickname) glow.

In contrast, using Andrew as a framing device feels didactic and trite, particularly at the end when he picks up pen and paper and begins writing to his unborn child. The story of the impact of his family's conversion in China is a compelling one, but the play's modern-day beginning and ending have the coming-of-age coyness of a less-experienced playwright.

The production, directed by James Lapine, rejects the stylized blend of Eastern and Western stagecraft that has enhanced the visual texture of some of Hwang's other work. Tony Straiges' attractive but fairly conventional set fills the stage with a row of three rooms -- one for each wife.

This embracing of Western theatrical technique may be deliberate; after all, we are seeing this drama through Andrew's Americanized eyes. Only the sound design, by Dan Moses Schreier, occasionally intermingles music of both cultures. In so doing, it offers a welcome subliminal hint of the richness Andrew comes to accept and -- since this is essentially a play about the writing of this play -- celebrate as a hyphenated American.

'Golden Child'

Where: Kennedy Center, Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and March 27. Through March 30

Tickets: $25-$53

Call: (800) 444-1324

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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