BY ROB KENDT
Special to Newsday
November 13, 2007
"Imagine - a daughter not knowing her own mother!" one
character marvels near the beginning of "The Joy Luck Club," Susan Kim's serviceable new stage adaptation of Amy Tan's 1989 breakthrough novel.
Of course, intergenerational misunderstanding is not the exclusive property of Chinese-American women, which partly explains the universal appeal of the book, not to mention the 1993 film version.
But the singular, often disturbingly complicated ways in which Tan's mothers and daughters fail to connect give the novel, and to some extent the play, an epic breadth. In telling the complementary tales of four young American-born women and their Chinese-born mothers, "The Joy Luck Club" spans not only two mutually alien continents but a variety of human experience, from revolution to romance, from near-slavery to no-fault divorce.
Not all this fits comfortably onto Kaori Akazawa's lovely, mandala-like set. And Kim's stage version never manages to make the daughters' contemporary struggles compelling. Next to their mothers' tales of tragic hardship and compromise, the daughters' marriage and career worries seem relatively petty.
Our ostensible lead is Jing Mei (Han Nah Kim), a bookish San Francisco woman whose imposing mother Suyuan (Dian Kobayashi) has just died at the show's start. But the play's spotlight quickly shifts to Jing Mei's "Joy Luck aunties," her late mother's three longtime mahjong partners: Ying Ying (Lydia Gaston), An Mei (Wai Ching Ho) and Lindo (Virginia Wing).
In stories they both narrate and enact, we learn that all three women sacrificed something huge to come to America: true love, family ties, social standing. Ying Ying, the least well-adjusted of the bunch, sums up the feelings of even her more stable peers when she refers to her American self as a "ghost" of her Chinese life.
Ying Ying's memories also give the play its most stunning idyll: a re-creation of a Moon Festival, which includes a crowded ride on a gondola, an unplanned swim and a colorful dash of Peking Opera. As staged by director Tisa Chang, this magical sequence captures a convincingly childlike blend of wonder and terror.
And there's something moving about the pointedly non-filmic device of having the mothers play their young selves in their own memories. Especially touching in this respect is Ho as An Mei, whose tale of youthful woe may be the most dire but who maintains astounding reserves of resilience. It's not until a later tragedy befalls her in the United States that she shatters, in a heartrending scene opposite daughter Rose (Roseanne Ma).
While Kim's adaptation is deft and occasionally poetic, much of Chang's staging is blunt and prosaic. Not every actor here is up to snuff. But the spirit that animates this production at its best feels bracingly close to the novel's. If you want slick, rent the movie; onstage, "The Joy Luck Club" has the immeasurable advantage of immediacy. This time it's personal.
THE JOY LUCK CLUB. Written by Susan Kim, adapted from Amy Tan's novel. Directed by Tisa Chang. Presented by Pan Asian Repertory Theatre through Nov. 25 at the Julia Miles Theater, 424 W. 55th St., Manhattan. For tickets, call 212-239-6200. Seen Tuesday.
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