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"Valley Song" at ATC Tells A Timeless Story Of Young, Old And Change

By Margaret Regan

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  IT'S AN OLD, old story: How can you keep the young folks down on the farm when they've got dreams of the city?

Valley Song, the new production on the boards at the Arizona Theatre Company, makes this age-old dilemma exotic by giving it a setting that's exceptionally foreign to American theatre-goers. The farm in question is in the Karoo, a remote semi-desert in the heart of South Africa blessed by pockets of fertile soil. Moreover, the three characters embroiled in inevitable generational conflict represent their nation's odd racial categories.

There are two "coloureds," people of mixed race who held an intermediate status in the old hierarchy of apartheid. These are the restless young girl, Veronica (Tamilla Woodard), who longs to become a singing television star in the new Johannesburg, and her religious old grandfather, Buks Jonkers (Jerome Kilty), who sees that ambition as the devil's work. The third party, an Author, is a white man who's got a sentimental ambition of his own: He wants a piece of the Karoo's rich acres. If he buys, he just may displace old Buks, a precariously positioned tenant farmer who's cultivated pumpkins and yams on the old place since childhood.

The Author is a benevolent, progressive white, but even in the new democratic South Africa he has more power than the others. On his side he has both money and ingrained custom (Buks still calls him "master"). And in an ironic twist, the Author is played by the same actor as the old farmer. Through changes in diction and body posture, Kilty seamlessly switches back and forth between the two old men, both of them clinging in their different ways to the certainties of a South Africa that's already in the past.

The playwright, Athol Fugard, has long been acclaimed for his searing plays about injustice in his native land. This 1995 work is his first to grapple with the social changes of the new political reality. He intends the play's story of the conventional generational struggle to serve as a metaphor for the much broader metamorphoses of an entire nation moving from static oppression to turbulent democracy. The old men, he says, represent "winter wisdom," the young girl "spring dreams."

This might seem like good idea for a play, but in practice it fails to engage the viewer emotionally. Fugard's fine writing, filled with homely farm images and soaring biblical texts, is not always easy to attend to. And any play as full of monologues as this one is hard to pull off dramatically. Perhaps the gray subtleties of life in the new South Africa don't have the black-and-white drama of the old. ATC has made every effort to endow Valley Song with life. The vast sky of the Karoo is projected via lights onto a backdrop; the lights and darks of its changing hours and seasons admirably reflect the characters' moods and help make this beloved countryside into a fourth character in the drama. (Lighting designer Tracy Odishaw gets the credit.)

Nor can one fault the actors, both of whom approach their parts with dispatch. Woodard is mostly delightful as the 17-year-old Veronica, the very picture of youthful exuberance as she sings her own queer songs about her life or hops onto a wooden crate to watch a forbidden television through the window of a white woman's home. But Veronica's a little too good to be true. It may be that director David Ira Goldstein has pushed Woodard too far in the direction of hopelessly happy-go-lucky. Or it may be that Fugard has written an old man's idea of a young girl, a too-perfect, too-joyful, too-hopeful personage who simply doesn't register as a real human being.

Fugard also fails to situate his slender personal story adequately within his broad political canvas. Certainly, there are hints here and there of change. Woodard has one of her best scenes when she rages to her grandfather that she simply will not spend her life as her grandmother did, scrubbing a white man's floors. But how much does her intended flight to Johannesburg really have to do with the new South Africa? Mass media culture has made an incursion into the formerly isolated Karoo. It's the television, with its manufactured dreams of easy glamour, that has caught Veronica's attention, not the reforms of Nelson Mandela.

The play's central metaphor becomes even more muddled when we learn that Veronica's own mother fled to the big city a generation earlier. Mother and daughter both travel a path that's been well-worn by farm youth at least since the Industrial Revolution; they're abandoning the endless toil of the land for the dangerous unknowns of the city. What, exactly, is new here?

It's a pity because there's much to like about Fugard's play. The relationship between Buks and the granddaughter he's raised is beautifully drawn, and their heart-wrenching separation speaks to anybody who's ever grown up and left home, and to anybody who's let a grown child go. There's real pathos in Buks' plight. He's followed the life plan his own father outlined for him--work hard, love much, have faith--but he's losing everything he holds dear. And the Author makes some telling speeches about the withering of artistic ambition with age and its re-flowering in the fertile souls of the young, like the plucky Veronica.

At one point, the Author says he's thinking of giving up the noisy theatre, with its platoons of producers and actors and mean-spirited critics, and turning instead to the tranquillity of prose. As a matter of fact, instead of being elaborated on the stage, the simple tale of Valley Song might have gained more power within the strict confines of a short story.

Valley Song continues at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave., through Saturday, November 8. The play is performed everyday except Monday; curtain times vary. A free By Design panel discussion meets at 7 p.m. Monday, November 3, in the theater. There will be a post-performance discussion following the 2 o'clock matinee on Wednesday, November 5. Tickets range from $18.50 to $27.50. For reservations and information, call 622-2823.

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