East West Players is finally getting around to producing a work by David Henry Hwang (“M Butterfly”) in the theater named after him. The 1998 Tony-nominated “Golden Child,” making its Los Angeles debut, is Hwang’s memory play, focusing on his grandmother’s stories of her father’s break with Confucian tradition, the man’s conversion to Christianity and the cathartic effect this has on his life and the lives of his three wives. Director Chay Yew and an outstanding ensemble infuse the work with an appealing humor that only slightly mitigates Hwang’s heavy-handed thematic repetition and overstatement.
In 1918, the small southeast China village of Amoy is looking forward to the return of the community’s main benefactor, kind-hearted Eng Tien-Bin (Daniel Dae Kim), who has been successfully trading with Europeans and Americans for over three years in the Philippines. However, the return of the now culturally enlightened businessman marks the end of the old ways for Tien-Bin’s family, beginning with his insistence that the torturous practice of binding a young girl’s feet be abolished, starting with his beloved daughter, Eng Ahn (Melody Butiu).
Hwang then launches into an overly long war of words and deeds among the wives as they jockey for position in this new order. This only serves to undermine the playwright’s intriguing premise that the undisciplined, brutal honesty demanded by Christian truth proved the destruction of Tien-Bin’s tradition-bound family, which could not survive outside the safety of its monumentally formal and rigid, centuries old ways.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Dae Kim is perfect as the emotionally ambivalent patriarch who is striving to open himself and his family to the possibilities of the rapidly changing 20th century. Amy Hill (ABC’s “All American Girl”) offers a marvelously droll portrayal of brilliant but intractable, opium-addicted First Wife Eng Siu-Yong, who is constantly dominating the other wives with such philosophical gems as: “If you can’t live with dishonesty than you have no right to be called a woman.”
And Melody Butui is riveting in her ability to segue from the strong-willed young Eng Ahn to the feisty modern-day grandmother who relates the family history.
Offering effective contrasts, Kerri Higuchi is sensually compelling as the sexually favored Third Wife Eng Eling, and Emily Kurada is a study in cold-blooded calculation as Second Wife Eng Luan. Robert Glaudini is quite believable as the Rev. Anthony Baines, who is quite willing to be manipulated by Second Wife in order to win Tien-Bin over to Christianity.
The set, costume and lighting designs of Victoria Petrovich, Joyce Kim Lee and Jose Lopez, respectively, create an evocative atmosphere that enhances the production’s sense of ritual. This mood is further enriched by the music of Joel Iwataki and the on-stage performance of Erhu musician Phuong Tieu.