“The World of Extreme Happiness” at Seattle Public Theatre, Produced in Association with SIS

I’m an enormous fan of Desdemona Chiang who directed this play. And, over the years, I’ve been impressed with the acting of a number of members of this cast. In addition, I’ve come to expect really good productions from this theatre company and from SIS. I found little to like in “The World of Extreme Happiness,” an exploration of the costs of modernization in today’s China by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. Production values are weak, and the play is more than a bit polemical.

Historically girls haven’t fared as well as boys in China, and, as this play points out, they still don’t. It begins with the pains of labor that result in the birth of a baby girl in a contemporary rural village. Her father, who has little use for daughters, tosses her into a slop bucket from which she is rescued. The play follows her to maturity.

As a young adult full of hope she heads to a big city to forge her career. It begins in a public bathroom where she cleans the toilets and washes the floors. Depressing! Dead end! Ah, but all is not lost. A colleague takes her to a self-help guru who introduces her and others to the power of positive thinking.

Of course she sets about to rebuild her life. But she encounters so many of the inequities that are inherent in China’s effort to reimagine itself. Poor factory girls aren’t sharing in the economic boom that has enriched the educated men and women who revitalize the nation. No, the factory girls live in depressing dormitories far from their homes. They carry out mind-numbing tasks for relatively little recompense.

Our heroine’s life like that of the other villageĀ girls stuck in the huge cities is miserable. These women are exploited, unhappy, and suicidal. The play successfully portrays the human cost of societal transformation, and it identifies the early losers in the revolution. It’s an important story and has elements that could make it fascinating, if only it weren’t so preachy.

Sadly this choppy production is also flawed. Few stage props or sets are used. Much of the action plays out on an almost bare stage, sometimes on the floor and out of sight of some audience members. The highly creative lighting (Emily Leong) doesn’t compensate for the paucity of stagecraft. This isn’t “Waiting for Godot” where stark staging works perfectly.

As China has engineered its astounding transition, there have been casualties. We see it on this stage.

Through November 5 at Seattle Public Theatre, 7312 West Green Lake Drive N., Seattle, 206-524-1300, SeattlePublicTheatre.org.

Leave a Reply