“These are the things I should not forget,” reads the first line of LuLing’s memoir, as passed down to her daughter Ruth. That line, and the sentiment behind it, launches a multigenerational journey and exploration of the importance of preserving generational knowledge in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” adapted by Desdemona Chiang from the Amy Tan novel of the same name.
In her old age, LuLing has started to lose touch with key memories due to the fog of dementia. She spends her time talking about ghosts and curses, leading her daughter to worry that LuLing is losing touch with reality. But after Ruth finds these papers written by her mother in Chinese calligraphy, “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” sends us back in time, weaving through three generations of mothers and daughters. Through this journey, we see that LuLing’s behavior is intimately linked to her fear of forgetting the truth behind a decades-old family secret, a truth she hoped to pass along to her daughter through writing.
Chiang lays out an intricate story that makes you lean in as you follow all the twists, turns and reveals in LuLing’s life. Chiang’s adaptation is aided by a fantastic vision from director Rosa Joshi and designers Andrea Bryn Bush (scenic), Dani Norberg (lighting), Juniper Shuey (projections) and Erin Bednarz (sound). At its best, this play feels almost cinematic as it works through layers of flashbacks, first to LuLing’s childhood in China and then to the childhood of LuLing’s mother.
There are moments in this show that seem to burst open, exploding from the stage. At first glance, Bush’s set is fairly simple, with a series of plain-looking doors forming a wall onstage used as surfaces for Shuey’s projections. But it’s a few moments — when the doors are swung wide open to reveal flowing, sheer drapes hanging down behind them — that are truly memorable.
Throughout the play, projections are used to highlight photographs that actors may hold in their hands and showcase the nuances between characters in Chinese calligraphy. But during these blown-open moments, projections of mountains and clouds along with calligraphy flowing across every surface seem to almost transport the audience through some otherworldly realm. “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” is a story fundamentally about storytelling, the handing down of family tales through writing; these highly stylized moments, especially when juxtaposed against very grounded scenes, make the written word feel almost transcendent.
Unfortunately, while the production is conducted with a reverence toward language and storytelling, it starts to lose its connection with how that storytelling impacts future generations.
The frame of the play is Ruth learning about her mother’s past through a story written by LuLing that Ruth is having translated. The majority of the story then linearly follows LuLing’s life from childhood, except for when there’s another flashback within that flashback to tell the story of LuLing’s mother. It’s a fascinating story to follow, but by the second act, many of the heavy-hitting reveals have come out. The intrigue that got us into the flashback in the first place — what will Ruth learn about her mother? — has dissipated.
We start to lose connection with Ruth, who was the catalyst for all of this. Theoretically this is fine — after all, LuLing is the centerpiece here and Desirée Mee Jung is the heart and soul of this production playing LuLing. But the frame of the story puts us in Ruth’s shoes, and we never really check in to see how Ruth is feeling about some of these groundshaking discoveries.
Perhaps I’m stuck on this because it’s compounded by the choice to cast Sunam Ellis as both Ruth and Chang, an associate of LuLing’s family from her days in China. Throughout the play, Chang is the root cause of so many of the misfortunes that befell Ruth’s mother and family through the generations. Chang’s shown as someone willing to beat a crying infant, to kill and steal to get what he wants. Don’t get me wrong, please keep Ellis on stage. She brings a perfect dose of slimy confidence to Chang. But without having a more solid footing on Ruth’s view of these events, I’m stuck wondering if this casting is meant to reflect Ruth seeing herself in Chang — an impediment to her mother finding joy, peace and truth — or if it’s merely smart casting to keep a talented actor in two significant roles.
Despite this, I’m left fascinated by the story told in “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and the care with which language is treated by its creators. Sure, I’m left with questions on how this legacy plays into Ruth’s life moving forward, since it’s through her eyes we seem to experience all this. But I’m also left with LuLing’s powerful journey and the touching efforts of her daughter to connect a mother with a past she’s terrified she’ll forget.
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