Valley Song

People's Light & Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, through Feb. 16 , (610) 644-3500.

The fact that the author doesn't appear in this production of Valley Song may be its greatest strength.
It must have taken a lot of courage for director Stephen Novelli to choose to stage Athol Fugard's latest play, Valley Song, at People's Light & Theatre, barely a year after it had received its first American production at a theater (McCarter, in Princeton) barely further away from Center City Philadelphia than People's Light's home in Malvern.

That McCarter production had been staged by the playwright himself. And, to make the comparison even harder for Novelli, Fugard had acted in his own production of the play there, playing two of the three roles, one of which, named only "The Author," is clearly a stand-in for Fugard himself -- an aging white South African playwright with ties to both urban Port Elizabeth and the rural Karoo region, hopeful but uncertain about the new post-apartheid era.

The McCarter production was wonderful (and indisputably authoritative). But, oddly enough, the fact that the People's Light production doesn't feature the author playing "The Author" might ultimately be its greatest strength, allowing the audience to see the play and its drama with greater clarity.

The Author (Graham Smith) opens the play speaking directly to the audience, showing us a handful of South African pumpkin seeds. He then slips into narration, describing the life of Abraam "Bugs" Jonkers, an elderly, illiterate, "colored" (i.e. mixed-race) subsistence farmer in the Karoo. A few seconds later, the actor playing The Author is Abraam, planting pumpkin seeds in the damp spring soil.

When Fugard played the role, this shift from narration to enactment, and the subsequent shifts between the roles of The Author and Abraam, were both interesting and troublesome. Putting aside the question of his crossing racial boundaries as an actor (it's a fascinating and politically transgressive act whenever Fugard plays mixed-race roles in his plays, as he did in Blood Knot and Boesman and Lena), Fugard's performance as Abraam always retained a bit too much of the narrative voice, as though he were telling us about the person, rather than showing us or, better still, being him.

But for Smith at People's Light, both roles -- The Author and Abraam -- are roles for the actor to act, and Smith acts them both very well. The play may lose an illusion of actuality (when Fugard pulled the pumpkin seeds from his pocket, we believed that he had carried them from South Africa himself, and that he would ultimately plant them in the Karoo soil with his own hands). But we now see not one but two people on stage, each with a story to tell us and a life to live before us.

And, with the added distance of the fiction, the story told remains simple, poetic and resonant. The Author, buying the estate on which the Jonkers family has been farming for two generations, contemplates what it means to own, and be owned by, the land. Veronica (Lisa Rene Pitts), Abraam's orphaned granddaughter, dreams of leaving her beloved grandfather and moving to Johannesburg and a singing career. Abraam learns to let her go. The Author is reminded, by Veronica's example, of what it means to dream. And both Abraam and The Author learn that, in the post-apartheid world, where one's possibilities are limited only by the outer limits of one's dreams, they can only stand in awe of young dreamers and get out of their way, planting the seeds of the future together.

The scale of the theater and the stage (and William McNeil Marshall's wonderful earth-toned set) keep it all small and simple, as do the performances -- both Smith's narration and enactment, and Pitts' radiant acting as Veronica. Pitts understudied, and ultimately took over the role when Fugard's production moved to New York. Here, with the audience sitting on three sides of the small Steinbright stage, Veronica's wonderful songs (composed, as before, by Di Di Kriel) about railway buses, pumpkin seeds and windmills, are sung more to her partner in the scene and less to us, her imagined and actual audience. And so Pitts' Veronica is less presentational but no less aglow with her dreams and with the miracle of song.

With the modest scale of the performances and of Novelli's staging, we can see that the play may be too small, too simple, too obvious in its human drama, its poetry, its elegiac tone and its wistful politics. But such is the play. And that's just fine.

-- Cary M. Mazer