Monday, 16 February 2015

THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig at Manhattan Theatre Club

     THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS is a dramatically vivid, touching, feminist rendition of he sad tale of peasants who move to the cities for the Chinese equivalent of the American dream of fortune. Sunny, powerfully portrayed by Jennifer Lim, was an unwanted child. In a country with a one-child policy, peasant females are placed in the trash as soon as they are born. Daughters are worthless. In a moment of sentiment, Sunny was rescued by her father, who has more love for his pigeons, a reminder of his brother who was killed by the state for political insurrection. As a teenager, Sunny moves to the city where she works cleaning bathrooms in a factory to support herself and her father and younger brother who remain in the countryside (her mother died giving birth to her son). To her father, she is never more than a commodity. Her brother, who adores her, has his own dreams of success. Through a friend, Sunny is introduced to a self-help guru (supposedly these are very popular in China), and tries to use his advice to move into a better job. She is illiterate, which makes advancement difficult.
     Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig's play traces Sunny's rise and fall. In the process, we watch the hopes of the other women in the play dashed by a brutal system that remains sexist. The play is a bit too schematic. One has the sense that characters' fates are determined by Cowhig's political agenda. The play is saved, however, by Cowhig's ability to write vivid characters and her ability to leaven her sad tale with a good deal of humor. She is also aided by Eric Ting's sensitive direction and an excellent ensemble. The five fine actors and actresses who support Ms. Lim play multiple roles so effectively that there seems to be a much larger cast. It's worth the price of admission to witness Jennifer Lim's performance. She's a radiant actress, perhaps too refined for an illiterate peasant, but constantly fascinating to watch. There are a few moments in which her face is also projected onto a screen and one thinks that Lim could be -- should be -- a movie star.
     There are moments in which it is difficult to sustain one's suspension of disbelief, but THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS is well worth seeing.
THE WORLD OF EXTREME HAPPINESS, Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I. February 15, 2015.  

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