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Going Places In the Berkshires
CurtainUp Reviews Valley Song

This seems to be an especially fruitful season for any theater goer interested in comparing South Africa under apartheid and the free, post-arpatheid South Africa. In New York, Lincoln Center Festival '97 has mounted a month long Woza Afrika: After Apartheid drama series (a sort of tenth anniversary celebration of their much-praised presentation of South Africa Township protest plays, also under the rubric of Woza Afrika!). Here in the Berkshires we have had the Williamstown Theatre Festival's revival of The Film Society , Jon Robin Baitz's last-gasp look at a boarding school which mirrors the events in the larger world outside its schoolyard. And now we have the Barrington Stage production of Athol Fugard's Valley Song .

Fugard's earlier plays, like "Master Harold". . . and the boys dramatized the meaning of "Woza" (to arise) in the revolutionary sense. Valley Song is also a "Woza" play but like one of the Lincoln Center Festival plays reviewed here recently by Les Gutman, (The Suit ), it is not overtly political. In fact, it wears its political theme so lightly that it ends up being swamped by its more immediate story--the struggle of a grandfather (Peter Galman) to come to terms with his beloved granddaughter's (Kenya Brome) determination to control her own life. To her that means leaving the remote village where she was raised to try her luck as a singer in Johannesburg. To him Veronica's dreamed for journey sets off memories of her mother's ill-fated journey to the same city. To the anonymous narrator, a white native of Karoo known only as "The Author," Veronica's dream is at once wonderful and terrifying.

The playwright does his best to lead us into deeper political waters. However, the metaphor of the grandfather (and his alter-ego the author/narrator) swimming in a small pond of apartheid-bound caution and the granddaughter boldly swimming towards the deeper waters of post-apartheid opportunity doesn't have quite enough muscle to let Valley Song rise above being a winsome coming-of-age/letting go story. In spite of its lilting South African voices and Michael Schweikardt' evocative design of a Karoo (a semi-desert region) farm in the center of South Africa, the struggle between Abraam and young Veronika is so universal and familiar that it could take place anywhere. The result is a play that does not deliver as powerful and original a drama as we've come to expect from this internationally renowned playwright.

Considering the extra character of 'The Author" it's fairly clear that Fugard, who's also an actor and a director, wrote this play for himself. (He in fact, acted in and directed in another production at the Kennedy Center in Washington). Bob Ruggiero is strictly a director, and a very good one at that, so I suspect Berkshirites are getting a tighter and more focused production than those who saw the play with Fugart as author-actor-director. Nevertheless Valley Song would benefit from further tightening. I think, cut down to an hour instead of this too-long, intermissionless hour and a half, (perhaps paired with another short play), it would resonate more powerfully and allow us to fully enjoy its strengths. which are considerable:
Authentic performances. Guided by Rob Ruggiero's sensitive leadership the actors give poignant portrayals. Their interaction is filled with both tension and genuine affection. Kenya Brome's Veronica seems ready to burst with the urge to explore her talent and a life free from the contraints of Karoo. With the help of dialect coach Saidah Arrika Ekulona, both Brome and Galman have captured the lilt of their characters speech patterns.

Rich dialogue. Fugard's language often borders on the poetic. Here this is especially true of the descriptions of he satisfactions inherent in bringing forth seeds from even this hardsrcabble soil.

Stunning production values. I've already commented on the simple but effective set--but it's left for John Lasiter's terrific lighting to really bring that set to life, to transform the paper horizon in the background from beige to blue to red and to create the fluid transition from scene to scene. Characters don't just exit but become breathtaking silhouettes. In one of these silhouettes the actors seem to be two candles, another is reminiscent of Rodin's famous "Thinker." Peg Carbonneau's costume designs are equally splendid.

With its intimate peek into another world, Valley Song fits well into Barrington Stage's mission as an educational as well as an entertainment venue. With the set constructed by local design and construction professionals, this also holds true for the company's commitment to using local resources. ©right July1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

Plays mentioned here and reviewed at CurtainUp:
The Film Society
The Suit

Directed by Rob Ruggiero
With Kenya Brome and Peter Galman
Barrington Stage
Consolati Performing Arts
Sheffield, MA (413)528-8888
7/18/97-8/03/97 (opening, 6/27)

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