Susan Kim’s spry adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” is staged adequately if not brilliantly by the Pan Asian Rep, giving the original work’s vigor a chance to show through. The intricate story is told with impressive precision: even with 14 cast members, actors play two and three parts, keeping the dizzying scope of the narrative intact from Tan’s book, though this stretches the characters a little thin at times.
To borrow a term, “The Joy Luck Club” is about culture wars — not the ongoing conflict between angry conservative Americans and angry liberal Americans, but the battle between actual cultures as different as night and day. Perhaps the best explanation of the problem comes at the beginning of the play, when four hopeful mothers explain their dreams for their daughters.
“In America I will have a daughter just like me,” intones Chinese native An-Mei (Wai Ching Ho) to the audience.
“Over there, nobody will look down on her, because I will make her speak only perfect American English!” adds Ying-Ying (Lydia Gaston).
Of course, no woman’s daughter is ever just like her, and the kind of assimilation that comes with perfect American English creates an entirely new set of problems.
Novelty, it turns out, is the biggest worry in the lives of the older women. New languages, new religions and new methods of courtship all disrupt their orderly lives, and though the actors range all over the map in terms of skill, Kim and Tan play this conflict out in scenarios designed with an impressive specificity.
That specificity occasionally undermines a story as sweeping as this. Take for example the life of Rose Hsu Jordan (Roseanne Ma): Rose seems to be the most interesting and full character onstage, partly because Ma nails the role of a gentle wife and daughter learning to stand up for herself. But when she finally confronts her selfish husband (Scott Klavan) at the end of the play, we feel cheated. Where’s the rest of her life? Couldn’t there have been another scene or two about her?
It’s an unreasonable request, of course. The play is already over two hours long (Wayne Wang’s 1993 film version is even longer), and it’s not as though the other characters are boring.
Despite director Tisa Chang’s attempts to inject theatricality, “The Joy Luck Club” ultimately adds up to a number of moving moments, rather than a complete play. Some of those moments are beautiful (An-Mei’s loss of faith in particular is heartbreaking), but they only whet the appetite for a deeper knowledge that this production can’t quite provide.