Humility is power,” says the first wife of merchant Eng Tieng-Bin, illuminating in a phrase the remoteness of the world – 1918 China – David Henry Hwang is exploring in his new play, “Golden Child.” We live now in a world where power is associated with more obvious attributes, so it’s no wonder that Hwang has taken pains – in the end perhaps too many – to translate for easier ingestion the sharp observations about the clash of Chinese and Western culture that are at the heart of his play.
The work was commissioned by South Coast Repertory, but debuted at New York’s Public Theater last fall. Hwang and director James Lapine have refined the play for its South Coast stand, and the care they’re taking is certainly warranted by its many distinctions.
Chief among these is its ambition: to bring to vivid life the social climate of a rural Chinese family as it faces the breakdown of centuries of tradition. The writing is on the wall when Eng (Stan Egi) returns from his work in the Philippines to his provincial village and is in thrall to the novelty of Christianity – he’s even got a clergyman in tow. His first act is to remove the bindings from his daughter Ahn’s feet, signaling that his conversion is not just to a new God but an entirely different way of life.
His deeply religious wife Siu-Yong (Tsai Chin) instantly sees the threat to the household, of which she, by traditional rights, is the autocratic head (“Call a man master, and he’s your slave for life,” she tells Ahn (Julyana Soelistyo), the “golden” – i.e. luck-bringing – child of the title). But while Siu-Yong is more than content with her role as the most respected, if not loved, of Eng’s three wives, his wife Luan (Jodi Long) sees the new man in town- Jesus, in this case – as a means to further her end, which is to wrest Eng’s attentions from his third wife, the youngest and most lovely, Eling (Liana Pai).
The play is at its most subtle when illuminating the ways in which the new religion appeals to Eng because it coincides with his self-interests. While Chinese religion plays on ancestor worship and fealty to family, Christianity exalts the individual, an idea that appeals to the ambitious Eng. Nor does it allow for more than one wife, of course, and Eng dreams of living his life with just the lovely Eling to adore, “to follow the rules of my own heart,” as he says.
As the new religion gradually gains the upper hand in the household (a beautifully realized set by Tony Straiges, lit with elegance by David J. Lander), Siu-Yong retreats into a haze of opium-induced forgetfulness; Luan embraces Christ with a false vigor born of opportunism; and the simple, shy Eling is caught in the middle, loving her husband and wishing to accommodate him even as she feels an instinctive loyalty to the old traditions. In the end, the family pays a terrible price – two deaths – for Eng’s spiritual rebirth.
The play brims with notable ideas, but Hwang does not always explore them with the necessary smoothness. Some of the dialogue is a little bald, as when Siu-Yong wails “How much change can people endure?,” hitting a thematic nail too squarely on the head. Likewise, the tragic irony that his conversion brings about would have more resonance if Eng didn’t spell it out for us.
More significantly, the central characters largely remain remote, archetypal figures, rather than people of flesh, blood and feeling. Egi is somewhat stilted as Eng (lines like “You’ve changed – I don’t even know the woman you’ve become” don’t help), and though Tsai Chin’s first wife is commandingly played, the character dispenses tart aphorisms (albeit very witty ones) in a manner that borders on stereotype. Indeed, all the characters in the play speak in a style that sounds less than natural, perhaps in an attempt to approximate the different cadences of Chinese speech. Director Lapine seems to have emphasized elegant staging more than feeling here, and the formality of the characters’ speech adds to the occasional stiffness of the proceedings.
The framing scenes set in the present day that open and close the play are still problematic. These have been reworked since the play’s debut, but they remain vaguely conceived; they seem a perfunctory way of giving a contemporary audience an easy handle on the play’s meaning. But Hwang underestimates his audience in thinking a modern-day connection is needed for meaning to be found, and he compromises the artistry of the play.
“Golden Child” has abundant wit and intelligence, and clearly Hwang’s desire to tell this complex story has its roots in a deep feeling for his ancestors’ painful transition from Chinese to Western culture. The play doesn’t yet comfortably accommodate the complexity of its story, but ambition is among the smaller of playwrights’ sins.