Chicago Theatre Review
Happiness May be Overrated
World of Extreme Happiness – Goodman Theatre
Unwanted from the moment she’s born, Sunny Lee is wrapped in an old newspaper and stuffed in a slop pot for the pigs to eat. When her father dares to take a peek in the jar of garbage he sees his discarded baby smiling at him and decides that it’s a sign that she’s meant for greater things in life than to become food for his hog. Sunny grows up to become a strong young woman who also believes there’s more to life than wasting away at her family’s impoverished shack, with her only future being to marry and and produce children, like her mother.
Sunny leaves her parents and younger brother Pete and heads off to the neon lights of the big city, where a promise of a big paying job in the factory and a glamorous new life await her. Instead, Sunny finds herself mopping floors and cleaning toilets. At work, she meets another young woman named Ming-Ming who convinces Sunny to join her at the self-improvement class led by the flamboyant Mr. Destiny. Sunny’s hunger for success traps her in an uncompromising machine of progress, and she’s comes to understand the horror of achieving wealth, power and fame at the cost of human lives and honor.
Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s biting, blunt new play about a China transitioning from a rural, agrarian society into a fast-paced, industrialized country of sprawling urban centers is often shocking, yet frequently very funny. The playwright’s focus is on the influx of young migrant workers who, fed up with their poor lot in life, have journeyed to the cities, hungry for their piece of the pie. Sunny’s hopes of transforming the lives of her family and herself soon falls apart as she comes to understand the frightening repercussions behind her new mantra, “advancement by any means necessary.”
Director Eric Ting has taken this episodic script and turned it into dynamically flowing, edge-of-your-seat story that compels total audience involvement, defying them not to look away. The pacing is brisk and well-focused; Mimi Lin and Tyler Micoleau’s scenic and lighting designs are excellently fluid; the acting is committed and honest.
Jennifer Lim, Jeff Award-nominated actress for her role in David Henry Hwang’s “Chinglish,” is outstanding as the brightly optimistic Sunny. Ms. Lim is appealing, articulate and sincere in her portrayal of an unsung, rural Chinese heroine. From her powerful determination as a young woman ready to conquer the world, to the final, heartbreaking moments of this drama, Jennifer Lim is immaculate.
Ruy Iskandar, in the role of Sunny’s brother Pete, is an engaging actor, whose Broadway and regional credits support this young man’s talents. Graceful and physically agile, as he continually demonstrates Pete’s goal to splay “The Monkey King” in the Chinese Opera, personable and genuine as a high school boy with his own dreams of success, Mr. Iskandar radiates with charisma and strength. Francis Jue is unbelievably versatile, playing the varied roles of Old Lao, Sunny’s stern supervisor Gao Chen, and a humorously dynamic motivational speaker, Mr. Destiny. Making her Goodman debut, lovely Jodi Long masters a variety of roles. As the career-driven, stylishly competent Artemis, Ms. Long absolutely rules the stage; as Wang Hua a poor woman whose life is only drudgery, the actress displays her flair for comedy. Jo Mei, also playing several different parts, is most memorable as Sunny’s friend and competitor, Ming-Ming. Donal Li, whose career spans years of stage, screen and television work, plays both James Lin and Li Han with eloquence, integrity and restraint. A real tribute to this talented, six-member cast, the many characters in this play seem to be played by a much larger cast.
A play that challenges audiences with the question, “Is it possible to change one’s destiny?” Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s no-holds-barred drama, despite its charming dialogue that sometimes sounds like fortune cookie conjectures, is hard-hitting and filled with unexpected humor and fascinating characters. Scheduled to play New York’s City Center this winter, Chicago audiences can get a sneak preview of this unique parable depicting the inevitability of a person’s life written in stone. It’s a powerful, unflinching look at another culture during a different time, not too far from our own, that speaks to today’s Western World.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 13-October 12 by the Goodman Theater, co-produced with the Manhattan Theatre Club, in the Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Goodman box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Happiness.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.