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Amy Tan's tale gains impact as it moves from novel to story to stage

Wednesday, Aug 4 2004
In The Bonesetter's Daughter, Amy Tan's fourth novel, "Immortal Heart" is the name of a village in China, near the so-called Peking Man excavations of the 1930s. It's also a semimythical place of mute relatives, ancient bones, a belief in ancestor curses, and a cave in the shape of a monkey's jaw. Tan spun Bonesetter around a story set there, which appeared in The New Yorker under the title "Immortal Heart," and which Word for Word has mounted as an eloquent, self-standing piece of theater.

It's not a play. Word for Word never adapts. The troupe makes a point of placing stories (or chapters of novels) wholesale onto the stage, without changing a word. The effect is normally not just good theater, but also a clever and sensitive recasting of the work, worth catching even if you know the plot.

"Immortal Heart" is a two-layered tale, narrated by a Chinese immigrant to America named LuLing. She grew up in Immortal Heart under a loveless mother and a strange, mute nursemaid called Precious Auntie, who wears a cloth around her mouth and communicates in sign language. The maid's story forms the heart of both story and novel; Precious Auntie is the bonesetter's daughter.

In her account, LuLing skips back a generation: Precious Auntie, as a healthy and beautiful young assistant in her father's clinic, attracts two men. First, a married coffin-maker wants her as a concubine. Then a handsome bachelor called Baby Uncle wants her as a wife. Auntie agrees to marry Baby Uncle, but the coffin-maker hires two armed thugs to rob the joyous procession on her wedding day. From a formal perch on her hand-carried sedan, the bride watches her groom and father die. "That was how Precious Auntie became a widow and an orphan on the same day," narrates LuLing.

Precious Auntie, though, is already pregnant from an illicit night with Baby Uncle, and the accumulated horror drives her insane. To end her life she drinks a ladle of hot ink, which fails to kill her but wrecks her vocal cords. Several months later -- mute, grief-stricken, bereft -- she gives birth.

And that's only Part 1. "Immortal Heart" is as crowded with colorful twists as a Victorian melodrama. Part 2 tells about LuLing's trip to Peking for a marriage interview with a rich family (on behalf of their son). The trip ties in almost too well with Precious Auntie's operatic past, but in less than two dense hours Word for Word tells a story that might fill an epic novel.

The show would be tedious if it weren't so well-acted. Julia Cho is a chirpy, energetic, and precociously curious young LuLing, drawn to Precious Auntie's eccentric behavior but also repelled by it. Cho shares the narrating with Kerry Lee, who plays an adult LuLing. Most Word for Word shows spread the narration evenly around the cast, and watching who utters which part of each sentence is always part of the charm. "Immortal Heart" is not so even: Every actor gets to say something -- no one acts out a dumb show, except the effective Lisa Kang as Precious Auntie -- but most of the words belong to LuLing, which enervates the production and makes it feel like a narrated play.

Luckily, Cho has a natural sense of pitch and rhythm; she's incredibly sensitive to the changing emotions of the young LuLing. Her performance drives the show. Tina Huang is also terrific as a young Precious Auntie and as a pampered sister of LuLing's, GaoLing. Michael Cheng does solid work as Baby Uncle; Dennis Yen is strong as the Bonesetter and a comic farmer named Mr. Wei; but Brian Rivera overacts as the arrogant coffin-maker, Chang.

Bones, fossils of Peking Man, and the dank monkey-jaw cave work into the story as death motifs, but director Delia MacDougall uses them lightly, to hint at a Gothic atmosphere. In fact, we never see any bones. Every scene is suggested by Jim Cave's subtle lights and a few simple, well-arranged props. (Mikiko Uesugi designed the set.) Keiko Shimosato has put together a muted but richly colored wardrobe of village cloth and big-city silk.

Tan, unbelievably, bulked out The Bonesetter's Daughter with a third layer of plot -- a contemporary routine about a San Francisco writer named Ruth Young. LuLing is Ruth's ailing mother. Ruth translates her mother's Chinese diary, which tells the story we know as "Immortal Heart." To me it's all you need. The Word for Word version is the novel in miniature, like a landscape on a grain of rice.


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