by Lynn on April 28, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Tarragon Theatre, Extraspace until May 20, 2022.

Digital Tarragon Chez Vous run of Three Women of Swatow will be May 15 – 25.

Written by Chloé Hung

Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster

Set and lighting designed by Jareth Li

Costumes designed by Shannon Lea Doyle

Composition and sound designed by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Carolyn Fe

Diana Luong

Chantria Tram

The humour in Chloé Hung’s play is certainly cutting, but there is a hole in the narrative and an elephant in the room that should have been addressed. Stalwart performances.

The Story. Grandmother is a tough woman trying to pass on her life lessons and knife skills to her daughter and her granddaughter. They all have issues. Grandmother is a butcher with a drinking problem. Her daughter is a vegetarian, much to her mother’s chagrin, and is also a woman physically abused by her husband but refuses to leave him. The granddaughter is a tough, opinionated young woman who lives with her grandmother because she refuses to live with her mother and abusive father. Generational trauma lives in these three women. How does one deal with it all and come to a meeting of the minds?

The Production. To clarify who the characters are the program lists them as: Grandmother (Carolyn Fe), Mother (Chantria Tram) and Daughter (Diana Luong) even though we will realize they are Grandmother, daughter and granddaughter (for clarity Grandmother gets the capital “G” as in the program).

The Grandmother grew up in a village in Swatow, China. She had no choice in who she married in that village and we find out why late in the play. Grandmother’s husband was abusive Grandmother grows into a fierce woman to protect herself. She tries to pass that fierceness to her Daughter when she marries a man who turns out to be abusive as well.  Grandmother has asked her daughter to leave him and come and live with her, but she won’t and tries to placate him instead.

At the beginning of the play the Grandmother is drinking gin, flicking her handheld electric fan for cool air, and reading the bible about a wife who gets revenge on her husband. It’s a scene that goes on a bit too long in establishing the obvious, Grandmother drinks, fans, reads the bible and takes off her clothes to her underwear because she’s hot. She gets a gets a tearful phone message from her daughter about how long to marinate the chicken for drunken chicken, that she plays again and again. Because we have no context at this point, the intention of the extended scene seems to stop the play before it even begins.

The daughter is going to try an appease her abusive husband with food. When we see the daughter there are bruises on her neck and arms. At one point she raises her hand to her face and it’s bloody. We are told that there will be lots of blood in the production. Grandmother knows that her daughter needs help as does her granddaughter. Fierceness sets in. Accusations fly between the three women. The Grandmother is accused by her daughter of being cold and unfeeling. The granddaughter accuses both of them of meddling in her life. They talk around the issue of the abusive husband. The daughter excuses her husband’s behaviour because of gambling debts. She says that he wasn’t always that way and feels she can’t leave him, that he does love her.

The hole in the story and the elephant in the room is the absent abusive husband. We are told so little about him except he had gambling debts. When did he become abusive in that marriage? We aren’t told. The daughter wouldn’t leave him and gave the reasons that have kept many women in abusive relationships—“he really loved her.” The physical evidence of violence  suggests otherwise.  The granddaughter chose to live with her Grandmother and not with her mother and father and was clear she ‘would not go back there’—to her parents’ house. That seems pretty certain that something was wrong, but then matters get muddy when the granddaughter waffles about her father’s violence.

The Grandmother has a solution that is pretty drastic, and again, we are not given a lot of information as to why that point was reached. It seemed more effort went into creating the humour between the bickering women than a clear path forward regarding the abuse.

As Grandmother, Carolyn Fe is fierce. She is matter of fact, takes control when solving an obvious problem and has no time for sentiment when dealing with her daughter and granddaughter except to improve a bad situation. Chantria Tram as Mother (actually Grandmother’s daughter) illuminates a fragile woman trying to deal with a violent husband, a commanding mother, and an irritated daughter. Diana Luong as Daughter (actually Grandmother’s granddaughter) is feisty, quixotic and emotional with all that is going on around her. Director, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster has created a cohesive unite with the three characters and an impressive use for blood.

Comment. As with many plays over the last two years, Three Women of Swatow had been programmed and then postponed because of COVID. The delay of course was heartbreaking to playwright Chloé Hung and all the people who worked on it. I just wish more time was spent dealing with the person who was affecting all three women—the abusive husband. We needed more information about him and what lead them to do what they did.  

Tarragon Theater Presents:

Plays, live until May 20, 2022.

Digital Tarragon Chez Vous run is May 15-25.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Adam CH April 28, 2022 at 6:56 pm

So if I got this straight this review is suggesting there needs to be more ROOM onstage for abusive men?


2 Angela Cavallin April 29, 2022 at 1:36 pm

I want to thank the reviewer for giving me a step-by-step of what I should expect from (what I’m guessing is) the first Act but leaving out thoughts on the performances, set, and direction. It really gives me something to look forward to discovering on my own. Also, thank you for clarify that no men are in the play and the title “Women of Swatow” is not misleading. All in all, this seems like a riveting piece and I can’t wait to see how all the blood is put into “play”.