Universal Themes Humanize Athol Fugard's Latest Play

For nearly four decades, Athol Fugard has been one of the most vibrant, passionate, and persuasive artistic voices raging against the injustices of apartheid. In his best plays, such as "Master Harold ... and the boys" and "A Lesson From Aloes," both nominated for Tony Awards, the playwright/actor/director combined convincing political drama with stories that hinged on both the frailty and resilience of the human spirit.

With "Valley Song," Fugard's most recent play and the first one written since sweeping political changes have transformed South Africa, the voice of protest is almost entirely personal. The blatant racial inequities in the country come across loud and clear, but the heart of the play is more universal.

A young girl (Veronica) dreams of leaving the remote valley where she was raised for a glamorous life as a singer in Johannesburg. Her ambition means leaving her beloved grandfather, Buks, who has already been abandoned twice in his life - by his wife who died and his daughter (Veronica's mother), who also ran away to the big city and disappeared after delivering her baby to her parents.

The play's familiar themes - abandonment; the gap in communication, values, and desires between generations; and the disappointment of living a moral life with only paltry rewards - make "Valley Song" one of Fugard's most accessible plays.

Despite the beauty of the language and the earnestness of the content, however, the three characters never quite come alive. A stylized quality to their relationship holds the audience at arm's length. Dialogue, which ranges from the banal to the dazzlingly poetic, shifts uneasily, and confrontations come as explosions with little buildup of tension.

In addition, Fugard sets up an intriguing concept that is clever but not entirely effective. The story is told through the character of the Author, a white Boer looking to buy Buks's farm to get away from the urban rat race. The Author, who is both character and narrator, also takes on the role of Buks with quick changes in posture and accent, and the transition, however skillfully pulled off, only reminds us of the play's artifice.

In the recent production of the play by Barrington Stage Company, co-produced by Hartford Theatre Works and directed by Rob Ruggiero, the pacing and staging were fluid and deft. Kenya Brome and Peter Galman gave vivid, compelling performances despite thick, inconsistent accents that bordered on the impenetrable at times. Brome beautifully conveyed the vivacity and boundless hope of youth, and Galman shifted convincingly between the suave Author and the colorful Buks.

Later this month, the production moves to the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck, N.Y. "Valley Song" has become one of the hottest plays on the regional circuit, with similar productions slated around the country. After a US premire at Princeton's McCarter Theatre (N.J.) and a long stint off-Broadway with Fugard as the Author, it has been produced in Connecticut, Vermont, and Martha's Vineyard this summer alone.

Part of the play's attractiveness is its practicality - one spare set, two performers, no costume changes. But despite the play's weaknesses, it is affecting theater on a very human level. It is thought-provoking and meaningful, with a directness, simplicity, and intimacy that puts many a million-dollar megashow to shame.

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