Amy Tan’s 1989 novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” was a blockbuster bestseller about four Chinese-born women and their turbulent relationships with their Americanized daughters. A sensitive examination of maternal bonds and filial frustrations, the book offered a rich array of colorful characters both poignant and comical. Still steeped in the folklore and superstitions of their native land, the older women teetered on the far side of a cultural gap their daughters found difficult to bridge.
Notable for its lyrical prose and the startling depiction of gender bias in mid-20th century Chinese culture, the novel was subsequently adapted into a 1993 film. Susan Kim’s 1999 play attempts to trim Tan’s lavish tapestry into handkerchief size. And although you may need that handkerchief during its devastatingly emotional moments, Kim’s effort still has some shredded edges.
Tan’s structurally complicated tale overlaps multiple story lines and characters, and although the book is fictive and frequently folkloric, it nonetheless has the immediacy and authenticity of oral history. Kim’s ambitious adaptation is more heightened in tone. As a result, the humor sometimes devolves into farce, the emotionalism into melodrama.
In the Los Angeles premiere of “Joy Luck” at East West Players, director Jon Lawrence Rivera attempts to smooth the fabric of Kim’s adaptation, with considerable success.
Despite a few treacherously weak links in his supporting cast and a cumbersome crowd scene or two, Rivera scores high marks for his sensitive guidance of his female leads, who all deliver performances of great humor and depth.
As in the novel, the play is a melange of yarns, parables and personal narratives. All of these mothers and all of their daughters have their own particular stories to tell, some humorous, others tragic.
The main narrator, Jing-Mei (Elaine Kao), a struggling copywriter hampered by feelings of inadequacy, had a fractious relationship with her recently deceased mother, Suyuan (Cici Lau), whose revelatory and tragic past resurfaces only after her death. Brash and thoroughly westernized Waverly (Celeste Den) clashes with her mother, Lindo (Karen Huie), a child bride who fled her unhappy marriage for America.
Also a fugitive from a disastrous first marriage, Ying-Ying (Deborah Png) counsels her emotionally reticent daughter, Lena (Katherine Lee) to stand up for herself, as she could not. An-Mei (Emily Kuroda), who learned how to “shout” and assert herself at an early age, is also frustrated by the dangerous passivity of her daughter Rose (Jennifer Chang), a much-put-upon wife who finally finds her voice.
John H. Binkley’s clever set and projection design features a tenement-like structure, framed by rolling parti-colored parchments, one of which serves as a seating area, the other as a screen for projected supertitles that function very much like chapter headings. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and Dori Quan’s costumes are both first rate, as is Nathan Wang’s lovely sound design and live original music.
Blending hilarity and heartbreak, the play has moments both sidesplitting and shattering. But, despite a few fascinating and eloquent members, this overwritten and unrefined “Club” needs to be a bit more exclusive.
‘The Joy Luck Club’
Where: East West Players, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 7.
Price: $40 to $45. www.eastwestplayers.org or (213) 625-7000.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.