Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Passionate Production of Amy Tan's Immortal Heart by Word for Word

Also see Richard's reviews of Meg MacKay and Billy Philadelphia

Julia Cho
Word for Word Company is currently presenting a passionate presentation of Amy Tan's short story Immortal Heart at the Magic Theatre. This story was first published in the New Yorker where it set the stage for her best selling novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter.

In their 11th year, award-winning Word for Word Company continues to bring amazing performances of classic and contemporary fiction to the stage. This is not a group of actors standing behind lecterns reading a script or a book; this talented company acts the parts with costumes and props, and no scripts or books in hand. Every production has first class, professional acting, such as in their recent productions of Fall River Axe Murders and Oil, reviewed last year.

Immortal Heart is the story of Precious Auntie - a headstrong, independent young woman, daughter of the Bonesetter and healer of the rural village of Immortal Heart near the city of Peking during the early 1900s. She is betrothed to the ink maker's son, against the advice of fortunetellers and jealous neighbors. Tragedy befalls Auntie's father and intended groom due to the vicious and jealous, coffin maker Chang. Precious Auntie looses control of her vocal cords due to a suicide attempt made by swallowing hot ink. The ink maker's family takes the mute woman into their home where she becomes the nursemaid to the family's daughter LuLing.

The ink maker's family is moderately successful since the family had discovered a secret cave called "Monkey Jaw" located near the village. The cave contains a secret ingredient that makes perfect ink for the patriarch who makes ink sticks for Chinese calligraphy in Peking. This secret is handed down from generation to generation.

Immortal Heart centers on the relationship between adolescent LuLing and mute Precious Auntie, who is really more than a nursemaid trying to keep the young girl on the right path to adulthood. The production unfolds at a balanced pace and each scene flows smoothly into the next, due to Delia MacDougall's superb direction. Timing is perfect as actors change from character to character without effort. Production values, including the use of ingenious props, are amazing. Amy Tan's prose is wonderful; for example, as the story begins:

"Watch now, Lu Ling," she ordered and began to draw: "See this curving stroke? That's the bottom of the heart where blood gathers" And as I traced the character she asked "Whose dead heart gave shape to this word? How did it begin?"
This is the breathtaking story of LuLing's awakening to the mysterious adult world around her.

The combination of Julia Cho as the young LuLing, Kerry Lee as the adult, and narrator Julia Cho works magically. Ms. Cho is charmingly animated as the young girl who is becoming an adult with tragic consequences, while Kerry Lee is straightforward in acting as the narrator. Tina Huang as the 19-year-old Precious Auntie plays the role as a strong-willed teen and gives a pleasingly fine performance. She also plays the pouting spoiled sister GaoLing. Lisa Kang, as the older mute Precious Auntie, is amazing without saying one word; her hands speak volumes. She changes character completely as the bitchy Mrs. Chang in some of the scenes.

Michael Cheng, who is also the assistant director, is excellent as the pleasantly infatuated Baby Uncle who dearly loves the young Auntie at age 19. He also plays the father in the later time of the production. Brian Rivera is properly repugnant as the atrocious Chang. Dennis Yen is sublime as the tender bonesetter. Mitzie Abe and Melissa Wong Renati are very good playing various roles in the drama.

MacDougall has done fine directorial work, using imaginative staging for such items as a sedan chair ride, the joggle of a wagon on the road to Peking and rickshaw wheels (spinning parasols). Keiko Shimosato's period costumes are eye appealing.

Immortal Heart plays through August 8th at the Magic Theatre, Southside Building D, Fort Mason Center. For information and reservations call 415-437-6775 or visit

Word for Word's next production will be two classic tales at the request of the patrons: A Jury of Her Peers by Susan Glaspell and The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant, which will open on January 28, 2005.

Photo Shane MacKay

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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