By Fran Syverson
You step into another world when you visit the three women who have played Mahjong together for years. They call themselves the Joy Luck Club, perhaps hoping the name will bring them the joy and better luck they sought when they fled from China.
But where is the fourth? An empty chair denotes the painful loss of Suyuan, June Woo’s mother. The women entice the still-grieving daughter to take her place. And it is through June Woo’s eyes that we see the stories of the four older women evolve.
Through flashbacks, the tragic circumstances which led each woman to break for a new life in America are gradually revealed. Tales of suicide, rape, loss of babies, life as a concubine, shame.
Each mother has an adult American-born and -raised daughter, and to say the two generations don’t really understand each other is an understatement! Nor have they ever. Cultural differences seem too strong.
Mothers had tried to guide the younger women to lives much better than they had known. But the daughters struggled against the mothers’ aspirations, seeing them as controlling. As the story unfolds, a mutual understanding between generations begins to occur.
More than a dozen actors populate the stage, assuming more than one role and appearing in more than one dazzling costume. Credit Jojo Siu and Barbara Phillips for the elegant clothes they chose for this play.
Playing June Woo as narrator is Nancy Ma. While in no way diminishing all other actors’ interpretations in their roles, Nancy Ma is absolutely superb in her nuanced displays of emotion.
The setting is sparse but elegant, with gold-trimmed chairs and Chinese art framing the stage.
We might say that silent “actors” are the lighting and sound design, so powerfully and effectively are they used. Throughout, lights glow on semi-sheer background drapery to reveal nearby buildings, shadowy musicians, a half-lit person. It is artistry at its best, and is handled by Derek Jones, Nathan Wang and Cora Chung.
Susan Kim adapted “The Joy Luck Club” play from the novel by Amy Tan. Tim Dang returns as director, while Estelle Campbell and Christian Lebano are co-producers.
Sierra Madre Playhouse is at 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. “The Joy Luck Club” has been playing to full houses at the SMP, so tickets are at a premium. They are available at sierramadreplayhouse.org or by calling (626) 355-4318.