Bittersweet memories at old folks' home

Yang Shi Bin (left) and Goh Guat Kian star in Red Sky, a play originally devised by Taiwanese director Stan Lai.
Yang Shi Bin (left) and Goh Guat Kian star in Red Sky, a play originally devised by Taiwanese director Stan Lai.PHOTO: NINE YEARS THEATRE

Eight seniors tug at the heartstrings with their stories



Nine Years Theatre

KC Arts Centre - Home Of SRT

Last Friday

Weather is a big deal in Red Sky. Characters often stand outdoors, experiencing the seasons passing or simply staring at the sun, moon or sky, wondering where the time went.

This gentle-hearted, tear-jerking Mandarin play about ageing and death set in a senior citizens' home takes its title from the phenomenon of the sky blazing red at dawn and dusk, and the script duly celebrates endings and beginnings in human seasons, and the hope and heartbreak therein.

Overall, there was a sweet, rambling quality to its storytelling - occasionally repetitive and flashback-heavy, but mostly bittersweet and full of wisdom.

You sit at its feet to listen.

The story revolves around eight characters, who, for various reasons and never quite happily, enter an old folks' home.

Originally devised by Taiwanese director Stan Lai with a group of actors in 1994, the play features specific references to the flight of Kuomintang loyalists from the Chinese mainland to Taiwan.

The historical trauma of this separation remains one of Lai's enduring topics. For example, a running gag in Red Sky is Old Lee (Johnny Ng) wanting to write his spill-all political memoir about the vague "three years" he was in prison.

The period details, however, recede in the background under Nelson Chia's stripped-down direction.

Set in a nowhere-land where characters speak a scrubbed, accentless Mandarin, the production lets the universal stories take centre stage.

The characters are generally well-drawn enough for you to care about their fates.

Old Lee and his wife have a heartless child who wants their insurance money before they are dead. Old Kim (Yang Shi Bin) has the sad fate of being the last one standing while his family have all died.

Meanwhile, beneath the sisterly bickering between the two single women, aspiring novelist Xiao Ding (Elena Chia) and hypochondriac Madam Teng (Lim Poey Huang), lie regrets about missed opportunities.

The script takes a cautiously optimistic view of ageing. I don't disagree with its fundamental belief that no one wants to spend one's last days in an old folks' home and whatever consolations friendship offers never quite compensate for the sad reality.

That said, I wonder if the pensioners' recollections about the past have to be so globally bleak. There are endless memories of cutting one's feet to fit the three-inch lotus ideal, missing a loved one on a train, being jilted, sexually assaulted, humiliated and so on.

With such emotional material, the staging came across as oddly sterile.

The unconscionably spartan set features a prison-like wall of sliding doors by Chan Silei.

Adding to the penal atmosphere are the younger actors in khaki samfoo standing guard at the wings and arriving sporadically on stage to shift furniture about during the transitions.

On the broad strokes, though, the production delivers, whether it's pitch-black comedy or episodes that give you a good ugly cry.

I especially enjoy the Suffering Olympics the seniors get into.

One-upping one another, they compete on who has endured the greatest pain in life.

They bring out gallstones, childbirth, a broken heart from a cheating husband...

And then it's Old Kim's turn. He says when his wife and daughter died before him, his heart went completely dead.

A respectful silence ensues and everyone assumes the competition is over. Then out comes his trump card: "Can you imagine the pain of not being able to feel any pain anymore?"

Standouts in the ensemble cast include Liow Shi Suen, as the fussy, long-suffering Mrs Lee, and actor and crosstalk veteran Yang, who played the scholarly widower Old Kim with genteel tragedy.

Near the end of the play, Old Max (Henry Lau), a singer who gives beautiful concerts in his head, proclaims, "I am autumn."

Bravo indeed, as the talents of this senior generation of actors are very, very ripe.

•There are no more shows.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2016, with the headline 'Bittersweet memories at old folks' home'. Print Edition | Subscribe