|Superb play, syabas to Pearlly
by Hwa Mei Shen
(From The Star, 26/3/99)
One-man (or woman) plays, particularly those with comic elements, can be rather dicey undertakings as they leave little margin for shortcomings. One false note and the show can well fall flat.
But a great script combined with an accomplished actress holds the promises of a delightful concoction and that was precisely what was served up to the audience at the recent performances of Emily of Emerald Hill by Pearlly Chua.
Over the years, since it was first staged in 1984, Stella Kon's play has captured the imagination of thousands, drawn irrevocably into the wealthy Singaporean family who is all manner of women rolled into one.
They smile with indulgent amusement as Emily takes them through the triumphs of the early years of her marriage, insinuating herself into the good books of her parents-in-law as a teenaged bride, coming up as winner in her many one-upwomanship battles with sister-in-law Susie, establishing herself as society belle and finally becoming respected matron.
They squirm with some discomfort at her more manipulative and managing moments, as when she blatantly charts her eldest son's future with a little regard for the boy's preferences and none-too-subtly pushes husband Kheong to seek public office.
They react with shock on learning about Richard's suicide after his mother has interfered once too often in his life and when they hear that Kheong has actually left her for his mistress.
They share her grief as she tries to understand why both Kheong and Richard ultimately hated her although she has done everything required of a good wife and mother.
They witness with pleasure the gentler and more mellowed face of Emily, seen in her thoughtful kindness for old friend Bee Choo and wise handling of daughter Doris when the girl sought to gain her independence.
And finally, they watch with compassion as she sinks into senility amidst the decay and ghosts of Emerald Hill.
There is no question that we have here a character of infinite depth that demands much of the actress portraying her.
And those watching the life of Emily unfold during the two hours performance recognised that Chua was one actress who was up to meeting that demand.
The opening scene alone called for the portrayal of five rather different faces of Emily and she certainly delivered.
We saw the nyonya besar talking matter-of-factly with Susie, sitting up regally and adopting a posh accent as she checked on a cake order with the Adelphi Hotel, relaxed in the chair as she moved o to a chummy chat with Bee Choo, smiling dotingly as she discusses plans with Richard, and finally brusquely giving instructions to a servant.
By the time she actually turned to the audience and got through explaining how Emily came to be the pivot of the Gan family, Chua had firmly established the nebulous but all-essential element called "rapport" with the near sold-out crowd..
Time and time again she demonstrated her range as Emily worked through a whole gamut of emotions.
Eagerness on receiving Richard's letter from England changed quickly to anger on discovering that he had left school to work in a riding school.
Then she gave us that marvelously sheepish look when Emily discovered on visiting England that Salisbury was pronounced "Saulsbery," and not "Saleesbeary"
There was also the intense grief of a mature woman coming to terms with the lost of loved ones and the pathetic bewilderment of a little girl faced with the death of her father and her mother's subsequent rejection.
A large part of the effectiveness of Chua's performance rested on the fact that this Singaporean-born but Malaysian-bred daughter of a "true-blue Baba" and his Cantonese wife was able to bring to life the linguistic nuances woven into the play.
Apart from having Emily adopt precise diction and correct syntax when speaking to people like Mrs. Schneider, the Bishop's wife, Kon has also given her a host of other voices, including the lines in Peranakan dialect and the quintessentially Singlish "Hei, Botak! What are you doing ah! What kind of fish you sent to me yesterday?"
Perhaps the most reliable measure of the quality of a stage performance is the response of the audience as it progresses.
That being the case, it is worth noting that Chua had the crowd with her all the way till the lights went out on the final scene.
When Emily gave a poise and more than competent delivery of The Old Kentucky Home at one of the soirees held at Emerald Hill, they applauded her appreciatively.
The news of Richard's suicide elicited a very audible gasp from at least one person while Emily's announcement that Kheong was staying with"(that) whore Diana Lee" drew a wave of murmurs from a host of others in the auditorium.
And when Emily got round to explaining her desperate search for recognition and control after her world was shattered as a child the audience went absolutely quiet in tribute to the power of the scene.
At the end of the show, Chua graciously thanked the audeince for "hanging on to every word."
Well, Pearlly, we in the audience thank you and Stella Kon for the pleasure we got listening to those very words.
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