Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
THEATRE REVIEW: “The Joy Luck Club”
Asian American Repertory Theatre
AIRDATE: SEPTEMBER 5, 2008
Eternal conflicts — between cultures and generations, mothers and daughters. The gulf may be wide but it’s not unbridgeable, given a modicum of empathy, tenacity, courage and love.
“The Joy Luck Club” is Susan Kim’s 1999 adaptation of the knockout first novel by Amy Tan, which became an instant bestseller in 1989 and was made into a film several years later. The themes are timeless, especially in the United States : immigrant mothers clashing with their American-born, Americanized offspring.
These stories of four mother-daughter pairs are bittersweet, often touching, sometimes heartbreaking. The women may be burdened by the weight of social roles and rules, but their robust bond transcends age, culture and era.
The mothers emigrated from China and wound up in San Francisco . Displaced from their homeland, wealth and security, united by tragedy, loss and hope, they came together and formed a club, to share dim sum, mah jongg and stories. Their histories are harrowing, unspeakable, but their daughters have little sympathy, focusing on their own challenges in relationships, work — and maternal expectation. As the individual narratives unfold, the mothers and daughters rubberband toward and away from each other, ultimately moving closer to mutual understanding and respect.
The book was gut-wrenching, funny, compelling and affecting. The play has its poignant moments, but with eighteen separate stories and scenes, the later segments tend to drag.
Asian American Repertory Theatre has plunged boldly into this sprawling epic, casting 18 actors in 33 roles. The large ensemble is a mix of pros and novices. While that’s commendable in theory, and it’s a long-term commitment of director Peter Cirino , it doesn’t always serve the production. At several crucial moments, the performances were uneven and the voices couldn’t be heard, even in the intimate Lab Theatre.
The stage pictures are often stunning, the playing space flanked by provocative red torii gates. There’s even a wildly colorful ceremonial Festival, dragon and all. But the still and moving projections, however evocative, often compete with the action. Dressing each mother-daughter pair in the same primary color helped distinguish them, but still, by the end of the long evening, it’s easy to forget which backstory goes with which duo.
And yet, some of the episodes are so powerful, they linger long beyond the final applause. The Moon Festival that reveals a child’s bottomless sense of loss. A young brother’s tragic drowning on the beach. As with much Asian art, less would be more. But there is so much to learn from these stories, about female subservience and independence, the complexity of domestic relations, embracing the new ways while appreciating the old. These are issues families across America face every day. AART is to be commended for raising them.
“The Joy Luck Club” runs through September in the Theatre Lab at the Academy of Performing Arts in Mission .
©2008 PAT LAUNER