Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club"has become an icon of contemporary Asian-American culture. It presents the intensely personal stories of three generations of women, all bound through the first immigrant generation's meetings of a weekly Mah Jong club. In showing us those mothers, telling the tales of their mothers, and seeing their interactions with their own, American born daughters, we see a rich and wide-ranging portrait of family and society, of culture sustained and culture modified, and of both the connection and alienation of distinctive mothers and daughters. It's an important and moving work, filled with interesting and recognizable characters, strong incident, and wise perception.
This new adaptation, by David Hsieh, is the second written for the stage, and follows the hugely successful 1993 film and the original book. There is much to admire in this intelligent, well-crafted and highly playable script. Unfortunately, the large cast of this production is far too unevenly talented, the production values too unfinished, and the direction, also by Mr. Hsieh, too loosely paced, blandly reverential and tediously unvaried in its dramatic development. It's all earnest and admirable, but we never really earn any of the play's insights, and none of the characters seem to have much at stake. Theatrically, it all plays like a staged reading of the novel, and both the individual characters and the dramatic conflicts are weak and undeveloped.
The prologue tells a poetic story that establishes a motif of personal treasures and difficult adjustments that will run through the evening. From that we go to the first of the individual stories, and the first of the problems. Katie Tupper plays Jing-mei Woo, and establishes the narrative format of the play. The problem is that she also establishes the lack of vocal variety, clear emphasis and vivacity that will also characterize too much of the performance. With other narrators, like the excellent Mona Armonio Leach, we begin to realize how very uneven the skills of the performers are. As much as the individual talent, however, the problems with this production have to do with the unvarying tone, and the lack of a clear dramatic arc to the play. Things happen, some more and some less intense, some funny, some tragic, some commonplace. The problem is that they are all roughly equal in emphasis, and a constant tone of quiet significance, and respectful essaying makes them all blend together. I think this is a perfect example of the dangers of the writer directing his own work. It all seems very much like the terrain of the written page, and not enough like the vital landscape of the stage.
Some very unfortunate design adds to the substantial performance problems. The multi-level set (also by Mr. Hsieh) is attractive but rather sprawling, and seems to take away some of the play's essential intimacy. The placement of the Mah Jong game on the extreme stage left makes it seem too peripheral for such a central element. The lighting, by Jon Harmon, is awful. Characters are often left wandering in and out of their light, and faces are plagued by unintentional shadows. Mary Petrick's costumes were the outstanding technical element, well-designed and attractive.
"Joy Luck Club" is an important and rich piece of literature, and this very large cast makes an ambitious and intermittently successful attempt at mining its potential. What they are not able to do is to make it into powerful and affecting drama. The stage is not a place for reading, no matter how wonderful the novel may be.
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