Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Joy Luck Club at Tacoma Little Theatre

Left to right, bottom row: Susan Mayeno, Aya Hashiguchi Clark, top row: Joy
St. Germain, Narea Kang, Ruth Yeo, Leilani Berinobis. Photo by Jason Ganwich
From left: Narea Kang, Leilani Berinobis, Susan Mayeno, Aya Hashiguchi Clark. Photo by Jason Ganwich
reviewed by Alec Clayton
The News Tribune, March 21, 2013

“Beautifully acted. An exquisite production. So grateful we had the experience of being in the audience." That was one of many tweets and Facebook posts to appear on the morning after the opening of “The Joy Luck Club” at Tacoma Little Theatre.

This production is more than just a play; it is an historic event for Tacoma. It was adapted from the Amy Tan book by David Hsieh, founding Artistic Director for ReAct Theatre in Seattle, where it was first performed. This production, like the original, is directed by Hsieh and features at least two or the original actors, and it is only the second time it has been performed anywhere.

It is a beautiful production of a complex and fascinating story. But audiences should be aware that it is not an easy play to watch. It is long (I clocked it at two hours and 40 minutes including a 15-minute intermission) and with the Chinese accents, unfamiliar names, large cast and multiple layered story lines it takes a lot of concentration to keep up. It is an exhausting play both emotionally and intellectually, but well worth the effort it takes to follow the many stories and keep up with the tangled relationships.

Jing-mei (Narea Kang) goes by the Americanized name June. Like the other women of her generation – Waverly (Ruth Yeo), Rose (Amanda Oliva) and Lena (Grace Xie) – Jing-mei disdains her Chinese heritage and wants to be fully American. When her mother dies she is invited to take her place in the weekly Mahjong game that has become an almost sacred tradition with the mothers. The Mahjong players and their daughters tell tales about their lives. At first the stories they tell seem isolated and random, but as the play progresses they begin to coalesce into a single thread. Most of the stories are narrated in the first person by characters speaking directly to the audience while other actors playing them (often at different ages) act out the stories, sometimes in mime and sometimes in beautifully stylized silhouette behind a scrim.

The stories they tell center on family dynamics, most particularly the complex love-hate relationships between these mothers and daughters; of cultural clashes; of love, loss and death; of murder and suicide. And with all of this it is filled with laugh-out-loud humor.

As the many story threads began to come together the daughters who have been shamed by their mother’s old fashioned ways began to respect and love them in ways they never would have expected.

The set by Burton K. Yuen consists of a bunch of eight-foot tall Mahjong tiles, three risers and a table and chairs. It is elegant and, fortunately, requires no changes other than small props. The beauty of this set is dramatically augmented by Niclas R. Olson’s exquisite lighting.

There are 16 cast members, and each one plays multiple roles. The acting is excellent, with far too many actors to talk about them all. I will, however, point out a few. Leilani Berinobis as Lindo, Waverly’s mother, is fabulous. She has many of the funniest lines in the show and delivers them with impeccable timing and attitude. Yeo’s Waverly is a wonderfully admirable and engaging character convincingly portrayed. Dan Theyer as Harold, Rich, Ted and others – all of the Asian women’s Western boyfriends and spouses – is fun to watch. He’s especially entertaining as Rich, Waverly’s fiancĂ©, who blissfully does everything wrong just when she needs him to make a good impression on her family. Aya Hashiguchi is outstanding as Ying Ying and others she portrays. She performs one gut-wrenching scene that I won’t give away and has some great subtle, tell-all gestures.

“The Joy Luck Club” is presented as poetry in motion. It is intelligent and heartfelt.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday through
WHERE: Tacoma Little Theatre, 210 N “I” St., Tacoma
TICKETS: $14.50 - $24.50
INFORMATION: 253-272-2281,

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