The Joy Luck Club
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
November 6, 2007
I went into Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's revival of The Joy Luck Club the way you might look forward to visiting a beloved elderly aunt. Sure, you've heard her tell those stories before—but they mean a lot to her, attention must be paid, and really they're pretty moving. I expected to have at least a few farklemt moments, and if she was in really good form, maybe I'd shed a few tears. Plus, the press materials promised a "re-envisioning," so I was interested in what kind of makeover they had given the old gal. I wish I could report it was an exciting visit, full of surprises, laughs and tears, but alas—no such luck.
I don't question the popularity or the emotional power of Amy Tan's 1990 best-selling novel; the interlocking stories of oppression and survival have touched readers around the world. But the book presents a challenge to adapt for stage or film. It's more a series of related short stories, covering the lives of eight women (four mother-daughter pairings), each of whom relates a formative—often traumatic—event in her life. Over the years, the four "aunties" have gathered around the mahjong table and shared their stories in order to heal and endure. Leapfrogging from China in the 1920s and '30s to San Francisco from the '40's through the mid-'80s, the piece examines cross-generational conflicts between Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters and the linguistic, cultural, and emotional barriers these women must transcend in order to connect. The book includes many characters and perhaps too much action to fit viably into any two-hour format.
Susan Kim's adaptation (which was first produced in 1998 by Pan Asian Rep and has enjoyed regional productions) holds to a literary tone and relies heavily on direct narration. Kim maintains much of Tan's evocative imagery but doesn't do enough to bring the book to life in three-dimensions. Much of the play consists of a single person in a spotlight, delivering past-tense narrative to the audience, and it feels as if the book is being recited and illustrated, rather than enacted. When the play does shift into multi-character scenes, the conflicts and resolutions happen too quickly to believe. These encounters are spit out in blurts, requiring the actors to instantly manufacture emotions that ring false. I realize there's a lot of material to cover here, but the mother-daughter dynamics offer rich potential for interactive drama, and I wish the playwright had committed more of the two and a half hours of time to showing rather than telling the stories. It's not that the text doesn't resonate, but the words overpower character and action; the play feels defeated by the novel.
In the program notes, director Tisa Chang writes of her personal connection to this play, and I'm certain many women of Asian-American descent can relate to the complex issues of cultural and personal identity explored here. The central idea of this play is that telling one's personal history is sometimes an act of survival, but few of Chang's actors have connected with the material's sense of necessity. Many of the performances seem either detached and recited, or else pushed to the point of mugging.
Wai Ching Ho does give a standout performance as Auntie An Mei (one of the older generation). Through precise theatrical transformations, Ho plays both a frightened child and a mother who loses her child with specificity and expression that vitalize the production whenever the focus is on her. Ho played the role in Pan Asian Rep's previous production, and whether from experience or instinct, she possesses the high emotional stakes that make her character undismissible. As the most psychologically troubled of the aunties, Lydia Gaston is fragile and almost frightening as Ying-Ying, but she somehow misses the mark in the play's most horrific moment. (Probably this has a lot to do with the script.) Amongst the daughters, Tina Chilip stands out as the driven, super-capitalist Waverly. Her vitality and pulse embodies an American spirit that clashes with her Chinese-born mother.
The press notes state that Chang's "re-envisioning...captures the historical sweep and operatic grandeur of feudal China," but this is misleading. One vignette does draw on Peking Opera techniques and storytelling, but this style is not carried through the entire production—and I don't know if the play would support such a choice. Really, this is a straightforward revival, not a re-thinking or re-imagining of the material. Kaori Akazawa's set provides evocative decoration and is assisted by Victor En Yu Tan's lights and projections; together the designers create atmosphere and suggest many locations spanning continents and eras. Carol Pelletier rises to the challenge of costuming a cast of 15, and I appreciated her using a specific color-motif for each mother-daughter pair to help us quickly make the necessary associations. As the play moves through time, not every period is represented with detail and authenticity, but Pelletier usually provides key pieces to help locate the time of each scene.
No, this visit to the old aunt was not particularly comforting or invigorating. I'd prefer it if Kim's adaptation were less like an elderly woman, just sitting in one place and talking at me, and more like one of the novel's young daughters—moving on her feet and living in the moment.