The Joy Luck Club
Community Asian Theatre of the Sierra—CATS, for short—mounts but one show a year. That show, however, is usually a pretty elaborate project. And this year’s effort—The Joy Luck Club, currently on display in Nevada City—is no exception.
CATS lavishes considerably more resources on its shows than is typical for a community-based group specializing in so-called “ethnic plays.” In terms of production values, The Joy Luck Club looks as handsome as anything you’ll see from one of the professional companies in the region.
The show reunites three designers who won Elly awards for their work on CATS’ production of Rashomon last year—sets by Marcie Wolfe, lights by Chris Goetze and costumes by Catherine Ione. Their sophisticated, eye-appealing work on The Joy Luck Club spans the considerable leap from traditional, pre-Revolutionary China in the 1920s to computer-driven California in the present day. Further enhancing the show’s glossy feel is a smart sound design by Chris Christensen, which takes us from a moonlight cruise on a Chinese lake to a memorial service in a Chinese Christian church.
The Joy Luck Club also features a cast of 24—something you’ll seldom, if ever, encounter at a professional theater nowadays. (The typical show at the B Street Theatre features three or five actors, by way of comparison.) With a group like CATS, we’re talking local actors—the word “community” is right up there in the name—and in the case of The Joy Luck Club, they’re summoned from as far afield as Davis.
As a result, the acting—while sometimes quite good—doesn’t consistently hit the same high standard established by the show’s technical aspects. Some cast members deliver their lines more naturally or with greater authority than others; some make you feel their character’s tremendous loss when a family member dies; others can’t quite pull it off. The cast is also multiracial—in this case, meaning that there are several Anglo actors appearing as Chinese characters. (The available pool of Asian actors in the foothills is not large.)
One advantage of the large cast is the big canvas created for director Diane Fetterly, who puts together some marvelous scenes. One involves workers on an assembly line in a fortune-cookie factory—technically, it’s just a matter of people sitting in a row of chairs. But with so many bodies seated so close together, working with their hands on the invisible cookies, it’s transformed into a magical experience. There’s also a wonderful scene involving a prancing Chinese dragon that snakes its way through the audience to the stage.
Fetterly, who served for many years as the executive director of the Foothill Theatre Company, marshals her forces effectively throughout this show. She also works the script’s recurrent motif of firm mothers and spunky daughters to good effect—and how often do we get to see a mother/daughter theme developed on stage these days?
The script (by Susan Kim, based on the bestseller by Amy Tan) deftly overlays the maternal elements with scenes of the daughters assimilating into American society, moving back and forth through time. This makes for a storyline that’s more episodic than linear, something which director Fetterly embraces rather than challenges. The Joy Luck Club moves to its own inward rhythms, rather than racing toward a predetermined, logical outcome. Never mind; there are more than enough surprises along the way to sustain your interest.