DAVID HENRY HWANG wants to say something about the claims of history and family and, oh, a couple of other things, too, but based on Golden Child, the somewhat tedious effort now at the Seattle Rep, he's more than a little unclear on all of it. The talented man who wrote the intriguing M. Butterfly here displays none of the thoughtful (and sorely needed) ambiguities that powered that Tony Award-winning play.

We know Andrew Kwong (James Saito) for all of five minutes before the shtick-y ghost of his grandmother (Julienne Hanzelka Kim) hauls him into the past, where he is transformed into his great-grandfather, Eng Tieng-Bin. It's 1918 in southeast China and Tieng-Bin is back from abroad, toying with the idea of Christianity and liberating his young daughter (Kim again) from her traditional foot bindings. This naturally unsettles his three wives (Grace Hsu, Karen Tsen Lee, and Kim Miyori) who now feel adrift and in devastating competition to be his sole, Western object of affection.

The wives' machinations and Tieng-Bin's struggle with a newfound consciousness might have more pull if director Sharon Ott didn't let everyone play it so broadly, and if Hwang gave us a little more credit. Saito is forced to constantly articulate the play's themes for us, in several direct address monologues to dead relatives; I kept waiting for him to launch into "Papa, Can You Hear Me?" Hwang's jokiness prevents any real involvement with his appealing ideas and undercuts every significant plot turn with purposefully anachronistic one-liners. Hwang is trying to be playful but achieves only frivolousness.

Ott has experience with opera, and it shows; her stage pictures are grandly gorgeous. Combined with Loy Arcenas' set, Lydia Tanji's costumes, and eloquent lighting by Kent Dorsey, her tableaux create the kind of visual experience for which the Rep is justifiably respected. What she fails to bring to the text is any vitality or importance. A static feeling pervades every scene because she hasn't engaged us in anyone's destiny.

After so much awkwardness, the elegiac climax of Golden Child, which both Hwang and Ott approach with style, cannot support the weight of the lumpy burden it would appear to think it has reverentially carried.

A Tiresome Child at the Rep

Support The Stranger