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A Timeless 'Song'

Theater review: Athol Fugard's latest work, which explores the interplay of the generations, gets a definitive production at the Mark Taper Forum.

March 14, 1997|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

In his plays from the dark and terrible days of apartheid, Athol Fugard bore remarkable witness to the human devastation in South Africa--for blacks, whites and people of mixed race. Now with "Valley Song," his first post-apartheid work, Fugard frees himself to address a problem that is not so bound up in his country's history. He tells of the primal struggle between a protective father figure and a daughter aching to break out on her own. Of course the play's setting is still his beloved South Africa--specifically the Karoo, a sunburnt, vast semi-desert in the heart of the country. But the story could--and in fact does--take place everyday, everywhere on the planet.

A definitive production of this two-actor play opened Thursday night at the Mark Taper Forum, after having its U.S. premiere off-Broadway in 1995. It stars the author himself, who also directs with great clarity, and a luminous actress named LisaGay Hamilton. No one who sees her performance is likely to forget it soon. Hamilton plays Veronica, a young colored (mixed race) woman of about 17, who lives with her grandfather Abraam, known as Oupa, on a dusty bit of land, which he farms with great love and diligence. They have only each other.

While Oupa rhapsodizes about a handful of pumpkin seeds, Veronica makes up songs and dreams of singing them on a proper stage someday in front of adoring hordes. Veronica is hungry for the world, and also for information about her own dead mother, which is hard to get from her tight-lipped Oupa. As written, Veronica is so ripe for living that she is almost iconographic--Emily in "Our Town" with the ambition of Ethel Merman.

Hamilton fills her to the brim, bringing tremendous technique as well as incomparable joy to this performance. Veronica quakes with ambition, swaggers with teenage melodrama, exudes boredom, desire, the need for attention in purest form. Hamilton shows Veronica to be a natural performer. If she does not go on the stage, she will either wither and die or else drive everyone around her nuts for the rest of her life.

Running or squatting barefoot on the stage, even Veronica's braided pigtails seem wholly animated, like a symbolic life force. The miracle of Oupa's pumpkin seeds--that they can create life out of the dry Karoo earth--is clearly a metaphor for the miracle of this young woman.

Just as Veronica is eminently understandable, so is Oupa, played movingly by Fugard. This is a colored tenant farmer who's managed through decades of apartheid, and who years ago lost his daughter when she ran away to Johannesburg and never returned. He imagines only a decent, hard-working life for Veronica, in which she will clean houses as her grandmother did. What is hard sense to him is incomprehensible to her. But their blood knot--their deep love for each other--complicates their struggle.

*

Fugard also plays the narrator, changing roles with only the removal of a cap. He is a white man who is considering buying the land Oupa tills. Listed in the program as the Author, the white man also voices opposition to Veronica's big-city plans, although his protests are more theoretical, as if he were a theater director from Veronica's future who knows the obstacles she will face and has come to help her find the resolve she will need.

Since he is a player in their story and not just a narrator of it, the Author stands at an odd angle to Veronica and Oupa, in an almost god-like capacity, often knowing what they think and sometimes withholding information that might be helpful to them. While the Author's thoughts give broader scope to what is essentially a modest story, the meaning of his omnipotence does not feel fully worked out.

If the play has problems, they were much clearer in a less-distinguished production of "Valley Song" seen at the La Jolla Playhouse last year. Onstage at the Taper, what could easily be pedestrian is imbued with elemental truth. When Hamilton stands on Susan Hilferty's rudimentary set, which suggests the browns and reds of the "akkers" that Oupa farms, she extends her arms out in the air and cries, "I want to sing!" The moment is not corny; it is filled with an impulse so pure it takes your breath away.

* "Valley Song," Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends April 26. $29-$37. (213) 628-2772. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

"Valley Song,"

Athol Fugard: The Author, Abraam "Buks" Jonkers

LisaGay Hamilton: Veronica Jonkers

The Mark Taper Forum and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts present a McCarter Theatre/Manhattan Theatre Club production. Written and directed by Athol Fugard. Sets and costumes Susan Hilferty. Lights Dennis Parichy. Composer DiDi Kriel . Stage manager James T. McDermott.

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