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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Book falls short on stage


By JOSEPH T. ROZMIAREK
Special to The Advertiser

'THE JOY LUCK CLUB'

8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 14; matinees 3 p.m. Saturday and Feb. 13. Added performance 8 p.m. today.

$12-$42

733-0274, www.diamondheadtheatre.com

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Susan Kim's adaptation of Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" touches the necessary bases, but much of its original complexity does not travel easily from page to stage.

The play seems swallowed up by the big stage and large auditorium at Diamond Head Theatre. Working with a abbreviated script and inside a large space, the cast has difficulty projecting the characters' humanity.

As a result, we get the gist of the story four immigrant Chinese women are disappointed in the lives of their American daughters, while the daughters are frustrated and dominated by their mothers' behavior. The action of the play attempts to bridge that gap.

The central, but not dominant, character is a daughter called to join the older women's mah jongg game after her mother's death. There, she learns how little she knows about her mother a failing shared by all the young women.

The play sets out to provide background, neatly giving equal shares to the older women's histories prior to leaving China. Each is complex, startling, and a world away from the play's setting in contemporary San Francisco. At the same time, the mothers try to use their experiences to help their daughters realize more successful lives.

It is a universal woman's story that can easily slip into melodrama and stereotype if the characters do not strongly resonate as individuals.

The mothers (Karen Kuioka Hironaga, Elissa Dulce, Denise Aiko Chenen and Blossom Lam Hoffman), with their remarkable backgrounds and fully formed personalities, are naturally more interesting.

The daughters (Jennifer En Ya Yee, Kathryn Mariko Lee, Aya Ohara, and Julia Nakamoto) have not yet been tested and because they have not yet been fully formed are weaker than the older generation.

But the tendency to generalize two sides of a generation and cultural gap becomes a problem in this production, in which we tend to see the two groups collectively. Indeed, it sometimes feels like personal experiences could easily be interchangeable, provided we stayed on the correct side of the age barrier.

The space available in a novel allows for detail and differentiated character development. A stage version will stay on the surface unless actors dig into their roles and make their audience recognize them a responsibility that grows more difficult as the size of the venue increases.

Reiko Ho directs the production on Willie Sabel's impressionistic set. We see a mound of low platforms backed up by stylized calligraphy on a huge Chinese scroll.

Joseph T. Rozmiarek has been reviewing Hawai'i theater since 1973.