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THEATER

She's Making This Song Her Own

LisaGay Hamilton finds personal and professional freedom co-starring with Athol Fugard in his 'Valley Song.'

March 30, 1997|Jan Breslauer | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

Theater director and theorist Peter Brook once described the cardinal quality of great acting as the ability to convey "the essential radiance" of a character. The definition could have been written for LisaGay Hamilton's performance as Veronica Jonkers in "Valley Song."

In the two-actor drama--written, directed by and co-starring Athol Fugard, and currently at the Mark Taper Forum--Hamilton plays with exuberance a 17-year-old South African girl on the brink of womanhood, yearning to break away from home and pursue her dream of becoming a singer. Her mastery has not gone unnoticed: When "Valley Song" was presented at the Manhattan Theatre Club last year, Hamilton received an Obie Award and a best actress nomination from the New York Drama Desk.

Reviewing her current Taper reprisal of Veronica, The Times' Laurie Winer wrote: "Hamilton fills her to the brim, bringing tremendous technique as well as incomparable joy to this performance."

Such praise for Fugard's handpicked co-star comes as no surprise to the noted South African playwright. "She is a superb craftsperson, a stunning human being," he says. Although he'd never met her before casting her for the play's 1995 premiere at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., he says now, "She's given me one of the most exciting experiences I've had onstage in 40 years of theater. It feels almost as if we're dancing together instead of acting."

Hamilton is equally enthusiastic about her "Valley Song" experience. "I feel excited by the journey this play has taken and the journey I have taken with it," says the petite actress, seated in a Taper rehearsal room just after the show opened here.

Although the character of Veronica is more than a decade younger and of a foreign culture, Hamilton found that she and her character had much in common: Both are at a crossroads.

"Similar to Veronica, when she comes to a place where she looks at her grandfather and says, 'I love ya. Gotta go, babe,' I have come to that place in my life," says Hamilton. "This character has allowed me to work through my issues of leaving family and being independent. Of really pursuing my dream.

"I'm finally coming to terms with who I am as a woman, what I want in my life, where I want to be," she continues. "Emotionally, literally, LisaGay is finally living her life."

She is also very in demand these days. In addition to three stagings of "Valley Song," intermittently over the past year and a half, for the past six months Hamilton has been working as a regular cast member on David E. Kelley's new ABC-TV series "The Practice," in which she has a small role as the receptionist at a law firm.

Offstage, Hamilton exudes the aura of a young woman who's on her way up and knows it. And while her character is exuberant and colloquial, Hamilton is pointedly gracious and nearly formal in conversation. However, she does drop her careful diction now and then to pop into a much more casual, almost street-jargon mode of speech. These momentary bites of slang, peppered throughout a conversation, become Hamilton's form of punctuation, and they convey just the right amount of good-natured insouciance.

Even absent the teenage verve with which she imbues Veronica, Hamilton, who is in her early 30s, seems nearly ageless. Indeed, she balks at giving her birth date.

Born in Los Angeles, Hamilton moved with her family to Long Island when she was 4. She grew up, she says, "a lower-middle-class kid who went to the public school system on Long Island and the last two years ended up going to private school, of my own choice."

Her father, now retired, was an engineer who ran his own small businesses in construction and related trades. Her mother has been working for the Girl Scouts for the past 35 years. They divorced when Hamilton was in eighth grade. "He was very much a part of our lives, but predominantly I grew up with my mother," she says.

Hamilton studied theater at Carnegie-Mellon and New York universities. She went on to graduate training in drama at the Juilliard School. Her career in the New York theater began not long after she graduated in 1988, and has been proceeding apace since. Hamilton has performed widely off-Broadway, including in several Shakespeare plays at the New York Shakespeare Festival. She made her Broadway debut in August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" in 1990.

Outside New York, Hamilton has acted at the Hartford Stage, the Kennedy Center, the Cincinnati Playhouse and elsewhere. In Los Angeles, she was seen in "The Piano Lesson" during its pre-Broadway run at the Doolittle Theatre in early 1990.

She has also been in the films "Drunks" and "Palookaville," both in 1996, and on such TV shows as "Law & Order" and "New York Undercover."

Two years ago, Hamilton auditioned for "Valley Song." At the time, her familiarity with Fugard was limited to having seen a couple of his plays, namely "My Children! My Africa!" and "Master Harold . . . and the Boys."

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