Light in the Heart of the Dragon | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Light in the Heart of the Dragon 

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Bailiwick Repertory

A major portion of Christopher Cartmill's Light in the Heart of the Dragon, set in late-19th-century England and China, consists of characters speaking Chinese to one another while the naive Virginian Templeton Light, played by Cartmill, struggles to follow the swift exchanges. Yet of the 15 Asian and Caucasian cast members in the play, only one speaks fluent Mandarin in real life--Cartmill himself, who must blink in comic bewilderment as several Asian actors--all carefully coached by native Chinese speaker Lee Chen--glibly converse.

It has been said that to know a people's language is to understand how they think, but it still comes as a surprise that the WASP Cartmill should have written such an intelligent, accurate analysis of Sino-Western relations. Writers, both Eastern and Western, tend to tailor their literary output to the expectations of their audiences, which they assume will consist wholly of one culture or the other. But Cartmill, through the unclouded eyes of his Huckleberry Finn-like protagonist and of the mentor-figure Reverend Peter Kuang, has succeeded in summarizing the complex social and political unrest that would eventually lead to the overthrow of the 250-year-old Manchu government and the expulsion of foreign traders. He also presents both sides with an unprejudiced equanimity as refreshing as it is rare. And he somehow manages to make all of this entertaining, with whole and recognizable characters, as well as ideas and emotions that unite us all.

Light in the Heart of the Dragon, the second in Cartmill's trilogy of plays featuring the fictional Templeton Light, opens with the young man setting out to seek his fortune while claiming to be a missionary. He quickly learns that his duplicity is not unique--indeed, exploiting Eastern countries while pretending to save souls is at the center of England's foreign policy. The Chinese rulers are no less hypocritical; steeped in a pride that prevents them from stopping the encroaching imperialists, they stolidly pretend nothing is amiss and brutally suppress those who point out that their country is being stolen from them bit by bit.

Caught between these two powers are ordinary citizens such as Reverend Kuang, who's struggling to hold his church together with the faith learned during his travels in the United States, where he also learned to play baseball; his wife, Christine, whose praises he sings with the eloquence of Solomon, though her dedication to Western religion stems more from devotion to her husband than from personal piety; and the mercurial Mr. Lin, whose insatiable thirst for knowledge will doom him to a cruel martyrdom. Other memorable personalities encountered by Light on his picaresque journey include the ambitious toady Reverend Harms; his supervisor, Reverend Harwood, a broken man wearily watching his religion serve mercantile concerns; and Harwood's half-mad wife, whose embarrassing sallies he accepts with quiet resignation. Light also makes the acquaintance of the ruthless Sir Albert Sunderland, who heeds no voice but that of money, and his daughter Elizabeth, who's determined to pursue Light to the end of the earth.

In this play--as in the first play of the trilogy, Light in Love--the time comes when Light must decide if he will put selfish interests above the greater good. As in the first play, he does the right thing, but this time his action is too late to save the lives of those he loves.

Bailiwick Repertory, under the expert direction of David Zak, has mounted a near flawless production of Cartmill's narrative. Robert Knuth's set suggests at different times the walnut-paneled parlors of a stubbornly English club in Canton and the teak-latticed chambers of Reverend Kuang's home. Darice DaMata-Geiger's costumes pinpoint their place and time, and the score of incidental music assembled by Cartmill is a perfect balance of Asian exotica and European romanticism.

The cast is uniformly superb, with outstanding performances by Cartmill and Gabriel Lingat (Reverend Kuang). A brief peaceful moment when the two men lift their voices in an a cappella rendition of "All Creatures of our God and King" is exhilarating even if one isn't familiar with the old Protestant hymn. They are ably supported by Quincy Wong as the irrepressible Mr. Lin, Caroline Luat as the ambivalent Christine Kuang, Pamela Webster as the headstrong Elizabeth Sunderland, Jerry Bloom and Judith West as the pathetic Reverend and Mrs. Harwood, and Rob Nagle as the epicine Reverend Harms. Representing the two empires are Craig Figtree as the chauvinistic Sir Albert and Marc Rita as the xenophobic city magistrate.

Light in the Heart of the Dragon has the potential to become one of this season's finest products. It and Light in Love stand up well as independent works, yet Bailiwick plans to run the two in sequence on Saturdays and Sundays--an opportunity not to be missed.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin--Jennifer Girard Studio.


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