In the middle of Seattle Public Theater's production of Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's The World of Extreme Happiness, self-help guru Mr. Destiny asks a young factory worker named Sunny if there's anything in her past that might be holding her back from achieving her goals.
Sunny briefly explains what the audience at this point in the story already knows: She was an unwanted farmer's daughter thrown into a bucket of pig slop as an infant and left to die for the sin of not being born a boy. After some thought, her father saved her body from the bucket and directed his wife to nurse her and care for her until she was old enough to be sold off. That early familial rejection spurs Sunny to work twice as hard as everyone else to prove herself worthy of attention and respect, but it also takes a toll on her sense of self-worth.
Mr. Destiny (played by Nina Williams-Teramachi) then advises Sunny to forget the past so that she might progress into the future, an idea that certainly serves the interests of contemporary China's business leaders, embodied in this show by James and Artemis Chang, who are played by Pham and Kathy Hsieh, respectively. But the story of Sunny's rise from the bottom of a bucket to the face of a company reveals how violent that act of forgetting can be, and how "moving forward" in that context can look an lot like moving backward.
The choices facing Sunny in The World of Extreme Happiness are bleak. One option is to stay in the country and struggle to make a living in a culture where "a girl is a thing," according to Mr. Han, and where she'll be expected to devote her life to others to the point of self-deletion. The other option involves fleeing to smoggy Beijing for grueling factory work and achieving her goals at the expense of everyone else around her, and/or deluding herself into believing she can be anything other than what her company needs from her, or killing herself after years of degradation and depression, or being disappeared by the government in a strike to defend her rights as a worker. Fun! And familiar in kind, if not necessarily in degree.
Director Desdemona Chiang keeps the scenery to a bare minimum, using only modest props and Emily Leong's lights to render the world. This choice puts the focus on the script and on the acting.
Cowhig's masterful use of language bears the weight of the decision. Her juxtapositions of brash and lyrical diction, and of glossy and grotesque imagery, reflect the world's extreme social inequality and works almost subliminally to keep the tension of Sunny's story running high. Dark humor offers weird respite from the play's consistent major and minor tragedies, and Cowhig somehow manages to create a heroic worker figure with none of the sentimentality (or optimism) that often attends that project.
Mika Swanson holds her own as Sunny, but Kevin Lin's portrayal of Pete, Sunny's brother, stole the show. His enthusiasm, body control, confidence, and range was only matched onstage by Hsieh. Hsieh plays the slick and corporate machine Chang with as much depth and insight as she plays the desperate but powerful country grandma, Wang Hua. Last I saw Lin, he was playing conceptual artist Lin Bo in SPT's unforgettable production of Christopher Chen's Caught, and I hope to see him in more stuff soon.