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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Theater Review

Valerie Harper Rises Above a Simple 'Heaven'

October 16, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Now at Hollywood's Ivar Theater, "All Under Heaven" is a solo tribute to novelist and activist Pearl S. Buck, she of "The Good Earth" fame. The project is Valerie Harper's baby. It's also that of producer Tony Cacciotti, Harper's husband, who commissioned the piece.

Playing Buck at age 79 (a stretch, since Harper, 60, looks about 45), along with various folks in Buck's deeply international life, Harper is a warm, vital presence. She's entertaining enough, in fact, to sustain a pretty conventional one-person show. From "The Belle of Amherst" onward, solos about writers tend to follow a certain pattern of reminiscence. "All Under Heaven" goes just the way you think it'll go. Harper's charisma at least makes the going smooth.

Harper and Cacciotti have revised this project for four years now, launching it (with a different playwright) as "The Dragon and the Pearl." The current version, co-written by Dyke Garrison and Harper, finds the Nobel Prize-winning author at her Bucks County, Pa., farmhouse in 1972, struggling with her latest novel, awaiting a visa allowing her to return to China, where she grew up the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries.

Buck's life had this central paradox to it: She decried Western colonization of Asia, yet her early years were spent in a family charged, in effect, with the task of religious colonization. Buck's first marriage, to a missionary, took her back to China after collegiate schooling in Virginia.

Her observations on Chinese peasant life found their greatest literary success with "The Good Earth" (1931). On the day her divorce from John Buck became finalized, Buck married her publisher, Richard J. Walsh. She established Welcome House, an adoption agency for Amerasian children, adopted several children of her own and used her name and her money to promote East-West relations in various ways.

"All Under Heaven" gets a lot done in terms of biographical highlights. Along with Buck at various ages, Harper portrays many other characters, including a sodden Sinclair Lewis; Buck's loving mother; the Buck family's Chinese nanny; and, most strikingly, the Great Dowager Empress of China, for which Harper creates a remarkable facial and vocal transformation.

The performer's willing, but the material's often weak. "And what an amazing day that was!" goes the intro to the anecdote about Buck winning the Nobel in 1938. "Now what's this?" Buck asks rhetorically early on, leafing through some old papers.

Director Rob Ruggiero does well enough by "All Under Heaven," though he and Harper could afford a rhythmic change-up or two amid their easygoing string of Buck stories. It's a complex show in technical terms: John Wade's projections suggest a variety of locales, and Ron Barnett's sound design delivers a couple of huge blasts when the time comes for the Boxer Rebellion.

It's more complex technically than it is dramatically. You don't get a full enough sense of Buck's several lives. You get Buck the insatiable do-gooder. In the '30s and since, Buck was criticized in some quarters (amid the general lavish praise) for revering the farmers of "The Good Earth" in their "simple," somewhat quaint ways. The same could be said for this material's take on Pearl S. Buck. It's pleasant enough, but Harper's clearly capable of delivering a full-bodied treatment of this woman's life.

* "All Under Heaven," Ivar Theater, 1605 N. Ivar Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays and Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Nov. 5. $32.50-$40. (213) 365-3500 or (323) 461-7300. Running time: 2 hours.

"All Under Heaven"

Valerie Harper: Pearl S. Buck, others

Written by Dyke Garrison and Valerie Harper. Directed by Rob Ruggiero. Scenic design by Michael Schweikardt. Costumes by Peg Carbonneau. Lighting by Jeff Croiter. Projections by John Wade. Sound by Ron Barnett. Production stage manager Tara Twait.

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