Review: ‘The Joy Luck Club’

'Joy Luck Club'

Scripter Susan Kim's unwieldy legit adaptation overreaches in its effort to capture the emotional depth of Amy Tan's 1989 sprawling generational novel.

Scripter Susan Kim’s unwieldy legit adaptation overreaches in its effort to capture the emotional depth of Amy Tan’s 1989 sprawling generational novel “The Joy Luck Club.” The often-compelling episodic vignettes, chronicling the complicated emotional entanglement of four immigrant Chinese women and their thoroughly Americanized daughters, fail to realize the novel’s overall sense of resolution and fulfillment.

A capable 11-member ensemble, under helmer Jon Lawrence Rivera’s astute guidance, impressively inhabits each of the play’s 18 scenes, but the cast is undermined by Kim’s unbalanced agenda and meandering dramatic throughline.

Rivera succeeds in underscoring the fractious emotional connections between each mother/daughter pair. Underachieving copywriter Jing-Mei (Elaine Kao) learns to appreciate the heroic survival odyssey of her mother, Suyuan (Cathy Chang subbing for Cici Lau), only after her death. Contentious All-American girl Waverly Jong (Celeste Den) cannot help but constantly clash with her culturally regressive mother Lindo (Karen Huie), a former child bride who used subterfuge to escape an unhappy marriage and flee to America.

Ying-Ying (Deborah Png), who also fled an unhappy marriage in China, is determined that her emotionally reticent daughter, Lena (Katherine Lee), learn to stand up for herself and become her own woman. The most socially dynamic of the mothers, An-Mei (Emily Kuroda), cajoles her emotionally abused daughter Rose (Jennifer Chang) to become an adult and confront her domineering Anglo husband Ted (David Stanbra).

As in the novel, all these mothers and daughters offer their individual perspectives, some humorous and some tragic, creating an uneven playing field of personal histories. A few of the scenes exude such power that they reduce others to the level of plot fodder.

A highlight is the wrenching enactment of the drowning of Rose’s little brother at the beach, wherein Kuroda’s An-Mei ragingly invokes all the traditional powers of her ancestry, imploring that her son be returned. Also noteworthy is Ying Ying’s youthful recollection of a Moon Festival in China, enhanced by Nathan Wang’s ethereal original music and sounds.

Admirably performing yeoman duties as all the men in the lives of these women are Stanbra, Edward Gunawan and Ben Lin.

Abetting the fluidity of the scenic flow is John H. Binkley’s imaginative sets and projection design, featuring a tenement building facade, framed by oversized parchments, one of which serves as a screen for projected chapter headings. Jeremy Pivnick’s understated but emotionally evocative lighting and Dori Quan’s character-perfect costumes do much to lend authenticity to the proceedings.

The Joy Luck Club

David Henry Hwang Theater; 240 Seats; $45 top


An East West Players presentation of a play in two acts by Susan Kim, adapted from the novel by Amy Tan. Directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.


Sets, John H. Binkley; costumes, Dori Quan; lighting, Jeremy Pivnick; sound and original music, Nathan Wang; stage manager, Darlene Miyakawa. Opened, Nov. 12, 2008. Reviewed Nov. 23; closes Dec. 21. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.


Suyuan Woo - Cathy Chang Lindo Jong - Karen Huie Ying-Ying St. Clair - Deborah Png An-Mei Hsu - Emily Kuroda Jing-Mei Woo "June" - Elaine Kao Waverly Jong - Celeste Den Lena St. Clair - Catherine Lee Rose Hsu Jordon - Jennifer Chang Tyen Ya/Tin Jong - Edward Gunawan Canning Woo - Ben Lin Clifford St. Clair/ Ted Jordan - David Stanbra

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