Antares catches Pearlly Chua’s 88th incarnation as Emily Gan
By the time the current run of Emily of Emerald Hill finishes at the Actors Studio, Bangsar, Pearlly Chua would have made theater history by playing a single rôle 100 times over the past 12 years.
For sheer dedication and stamina alone, Ms Chua deserves a standing ovation and as many bouquets as she can cart home in her car. And Music Theatre gets a big pat on the back for presenting the event with such unpretentious panache (I was fortunate to have caught Emily on opening night when the audience was treated to a tantalizing assortment of nyonya delicacies; it was a truly gratifying and tasteful touch).
Playwright Stella Kon is understandably delighted and touched by Pearlly Chua and director Chin San Sooi’s powerful belief in and unwavering devotion to her classic monologue, written in 1983 and first performed in 1986 with Chin directing Leow Puay Tin as Emily. Kon has reportedly sanctioned Chin and Chua to perform Emily wherever and whenever they are invited to do so. This is perhaps as close to achieving a “definitive” portrayal as anyone can possibly get. After Chua’s 100th performance, the rôle will forever be intermingled with her essence. Emily Gan, in effect, would have obtained permanent residence in the world of the living through the untiring efforts of Chin and Chua.
We are indeed blessed to be able to return from time to time to this beautifully embroidered tale of a complex and intriguing personality and gather what undestanding we can from this rich lode of human lore. Each revisit, to be sure, will be rewarded with fresh discoveries about ourselves.
To date I’ve seen Emily a total of five times: twice with the immensely talented Leow Puay Tin, twice with the slightly less accomplished but perhaps more authentic Pearlly Chua, and once with the vivacious Ivan Heng who played Emily in drag to wildly hilarious effect and added a kinky twist to the text. The only incarnation of Emily I missed was when Margaret Chan played the part in Singapore.
Stella Kon’s consummately crafted monologue has certainly withstood the test of time. Indeed, with each new encounter, my admiration for the artistic integrity of her text has increased. Not only does it serve as an important documentation of a vanishing subculture in a bygone era, the universality of Kon’s portrait of a very engaging human personality has won the hearts and minds of audiences wherever it has been staged. In short, Emily of Emerald Hill ranks among the most inspired and dramatically satisfying monologues I have yet to come across.
Doing Emily is no mean feat. Running at close to 100 minutes and encompassing Emily’s poignant story from childhood to dotage as dowager of a fading tradition, the rôle is a supreme test of any actor’s stage presence, physical stamina, and storytelling prowess. But the monologue flows so smoothly one’s attention doesn’t wander for even a moment. Humor, pathos, and a profound psychological insight into human behavior are masterfully blended – not unlike Emily Gan’s mouthwatering nyonya specialty, babi buah keluak, which is so addictive it tastes just like opium.
Back in the late 1980s I was greatly impressed by the dramatic nuances that Leow Puay Tin succeeded in bringing to her incarnation as Emily Gan. One must credit Leow with having initially given life to this forceful character. For a while, I could see no other Emily – just as, for many, Johnny Weissmuller will always be Tarzan. However, in the course of the last 12 years, Pearlly Chua has grown in confidence, skill and maturity both as an actress and as Emily Gan. Through her remarkable persistence and ceaseless effort she has inherited Emily’s mantle.
If you’ve caught an earlier version of Emily, you probably won’t regret a return bout, such is the timeless appeal of the tale. And if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of an introduction, don’t hesitate to witness theater history in the making. Word is out that Pearlly Chua has already been asked to do a 101st performance. Long live Emily!
11 October 2002