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Family Devotions
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2011-08-17

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Playwright: David Henry Hwang. At: Halcyon Theatre at the Greenhouse, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Phone: 773-404-7336;$10-$25. Runs through: Sept. 4

David Henry Hwang wasn't always the world-famous playwright he is today. In the early 1980s, he was merely another disenfranchised Asian-American author writing about—well, being Asian-American. In this 1981 portrait—dedicated to, among others, Sam Shepard—he looks at three generations of a Chinese family now living comfortably in Los Angeles during the second half of the 20th century.

It's not a pretty picture. Ama and Popo, the clan's native Chinese matriarchs, have mythologized their memories of the Japanese occupation in World War II and the subsequent Communist revolution to emerge as stubbornly unreconstructed as a pair of Dixie-bred dowagers. Joanne and Hannah, their respective daughters, have both married beneath their station—one husband is (gasp!) second-generation Japanese-American and the other, an immigrant from ("Shhh! Neighbors will hear!") the port city of Shanghai. The grandchildren, musician Chester and would-be dancer Jenny, yearn to escape the tribal tensions exacerbated by the grannies' Christian convictions, acquired in girlhood from a revivalist missionary. Ah, but today, a visitor from the People's Republic of China is coming to dinner—and, with him, the truth behind the legends.

The value of truth is a fundamentally western concept, restricted to citizens of privilege sufficient to protect them, should their "truth" prove embarrassing to governments exercising absolute power. Chinese parents are more inclined to indoctrinate their offspring in the wisdom of denying inconvenient "truths" and adherence to the zeitgeist of the moment. Thus, when the elderly uncle arrives, he promptly finds himself implored by his sisters to distort his experience in conformity to theirs—even to having an amen-snorting exorcism inflicted upon him when he refuses—while nephew-in-law Robert expounds on the virtues of a democracy where even a vulgar nobody like himself can suffer crimes usually reserved for VIPs. Is it any wonder that Chester warns their bewildered guest to flee before he's brainwashed by the culture that invented that term?

All this would be inexorably depressing if taken seriously, but Halcyon Theatre director Jenn Adams has prudently chosen to pace her production at a speed emphasizing the humor of newly affluent SoCal dwellers struggling with fashionable cuisinarts, microwaves and automatic grillers. The cast is uniformly excellent, fearlessly immersing themselves in personalities nowadays largely relegated to ethnic stereotype. Special mention, however, is due the courageous Mia Park, whose intractable Ama is a saber-toothed Tiger Mom dispensing policy as draconian as that of the totalitarian states she now purports to deplore.


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