Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Joy Luck Club at TLT

Red dragon
by Michael Dresdner

It must have felt like going out on a limb for Tacoma Little Theatre to tackle the daunting but superbly written play The Joy Luck Club, based on the deservedly best-selling book by Amy Tan. If so, it was a gamble that paid off handsomely, for the result is astonishingly good and very moving theatre.

The story revolves around four women who formed a mahjong club shortly after emigrating from China to San Francisco, and the complex and often troubled relationships they share with their American born (and Americanized) daughters. Beyond a mere club, the mahjong game reflects both the glue that binds the women and a framework for their life lessons.  

Breaking the fourth wall, both generations of women tell a series of captivating stories directly to the audience. The histories and scenes they describe are cleverly amplified by other actors in small vignettes, or as crisp silhouettes we see moving across a back-lit scrim as they narrate.

Through the mothers’ and daughters’ tales we learn of their often painful pasts, the varied and sometimes convoluted routes that brought the mothers to America, and how their history shaped both who they are and how each generation relates to the other. Thanks to cultural differences in their styles of communication, there is often misunderstanding. The older women expect their daughters to correctly infer their feelings and lessons from what, to the daughters raised around American straightforwardness, often seems a confusing and contradictory set of cryptic signals.

The stories go back three generations and are told in fits rather than with linear continuity. It may seem a bit disjointed at first, but by the end, all the story threads come together to reveal a tightly knit tapestry of history that spans over 80 years, linking two countries and four extended families. Ultimately, the younger generation comes to understand both where they fit as Americans, and how deeply they are still tied to their Chinese roots.

A large and universally excellent ensemble cast plays over 100 different roles in this intricate exercise in compelling storytelling. It would be folly to try and call out each for the myriad of excellent performances they turned in, so I’ll just say they all deserve serious accolades. Admittedly, I was particularly taken with Leilani Berinobis’ Lindo, Ruth Yeo’s Waverly, and all the American boyfriends played by Dan Theyer, but believe me, they were just a few high spots in a very elevated playing field.

Behind the fine acting was brilliant direction by David Hsieh, who crafted a varied and visually compelling tableau from a series of intricate narrations. With spot-on pacing and blocking, he grippingly illuminated the pain, confusion, and joy that the stories revealed.

All this took place across a visually stunning and rather clever multi-level set designed by Burton K. Yuen. It was made up of both horizontally and vertically placed gigantic mahjong tiles that acted as walls, doors, and seating areas bordering the aforementioned scrim, which was trimmed out to look like an Asian-style screen.

With so many stories portrayed by so many actors, there was a seemingly endless parade of superb costumes by Michele Graves, and an equally dizzying array of lighting effects beautifully designed by Niclas R. Olson. In short, it was an outstanding cast led by a terrific director and backed up by an inspired support crew.

Both as a cultural stretch and as first-rate theatre, The Joy Luck Club should not be missed. This is a rara avis even among the many fine theatre offerings in this area. Do yourself a favor and make time to see this outstanding production, which truly is a joy to behold.

The Joy Luck Club
March 15 to April 7, 2013
Tacoma Little Theatre

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