If you are a “reader,” and you love how novelists artfully draw you into the world of the book, you might already revere Amy Tan. Tan’s writing is compelling, descriptive, and sketches the personalities she writes about in vivid terms. She is not likely everyone “cup of tea” in terms of being an “easy” read. While her first book became a blockbuster and a movie (The Joy Luck Club), a later book, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, is a more patient read, one that takes time to allow to unfold.
The Bonesetter’s Daughter has at least one story-within-a-story. It’s a fairly long book, and Desdemona Chiang and Book-It Repertory Theatre have decided to adapt it into a play using about a third of the entire book. Chiang’s choices, as adapter, seem well-decided and the experience of seeing this book come to life is delightful and intense. The production, at over two and a half hours, immerses you into China a century ago.
Ruth (Sunam Ellis) is a modern Chinese-American woman who has a busy life and a mother who is descending into Alzheimer’s. Ruth and her mother, like many relationships in Tan books, have a difficult relationship. Part of that is because the mother, Lu Ling (Desiree Mee Jung) was quite harsh with Ruth, strict and even abusive, as she demanded that Ruth “channel” the spirit of her mother’s “nursemaid” Precious Auntie (Khanh Doan). Precious Auntie was so maimed and disfigured around her mouth that she cannot speak, but Lu Ling understood her.
Ruth tries to support her mother, but there are emotional barriers. Then she finds a manuscript that her mother had offered her many times, but she never got around to translating it or reading it. Now, as her mother forgets, Ruth realizes that she must find out what the book says.
From the translation, Ruth begins to learn of Lu Ling’s early life that she led with Precious Auntie and the Ling family. More than that, Lu Ling also wrote about Precious Auntie’s life, as well. Thus, the tale runs through family life: birth, death, hidden identities, war between China and Japan around World War II and the line of bonesetters that Precious Auntie came from.
It’s quite operatic. And it was made into an opera in 2008! It has those large, dramatic, intense family themes that lend themselves to opera.
The ensemble of actors is uniformly excellent. A visual of their effort might be a large tent that is floating above the earth, each of eight poles being hefted and held by a person. The tent must be level, so each pole must be held tightly at the same height. These women achieve that steady effort. In addition to those mentioned, the cast includes Kathy Hsieh, Nabilah Ahmed, Mara Palma, Mona Leach and Coco Justino.
A very “Chinese” set – minimal, understated, useful – was designed by Andrea Bryn Bush, with support for projections from Juniper Shuey. Soft and myriad lighting by Dani Norberg combines with a sophisticated sound design by Erin Bednarz. A plethora of props by Robin Macartney and a huge number of costuming pieces by Christine Tschirgi add to the constantly changing needs of the production.
Solid wooden tables and set pieces are moved into place with dance steps and stately movements. The audience is whisked from place to place and moment to moment, quickly.
Bring your patience for allowing the story to unfold and unfold more and bring your friends to share in the experience. People with uteruses will, I think, identify most closely with this story.
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