February 24, 2015

Sunny, the heroine of The World of Extreme Happiness, may at times have a cheerful disposition, but there’s a bitter irony in this beleaguered young woman charting an odyssey through contemporary China while carrying the burden of such a hopeful name. Not a lot of sunlight filters down through the smog-clogged skies to brighten her hard life. Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s drama, which opened on Tuesday at City Center in a Manhattan Theater Club production (with the Goodman Theater in Chicago), begins on a note of grim humor as a young woman, Xiao Li (Jo Mei), in the throes of labor, curses her unborn child and cries out for relief. Her husband, Li Han (James Saito) exchanges raunchy talk with a fellow villager, utterly indifferent to his wife’s suffering. (The explosions of vulgarity from both the male and female characters give the impression that Chinese peasants take particular pleasure in profanity.) Li’s indifference turns to irritation when he learns that his wife has given birth to yet another daughter. “A boy is a child,” he says glumly to the midwife. “A girl is a thing.” Just how negligible a thing is indicated when Li opens the pig slop bucket sitting near him, and the midwife tosses the newborn inside. Li then spits into the bucket.