Down in the Valley

Ensemble Theatre yields a folk-art gem with Valley Song.

Ensemble Theatre's Valley Song was written by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright noted for his parables about the evils of apartheid. Now that it's over, he is much like a retired Civil War general playing with tin soldiers, writing plays of fine-toothed introspection that play like sensitive magazine short stories.

Valley Song is his crack at The Glass Menagerie-type memory plays. Once again it is preached that the old must let the young go their own way. As simply crafted as an after-school special, Valley Song is, at its best, affecting folk art. A grandfather, rooted to the land, is a slave to the old ways. His loving granddaughter needs to spread her wings, go to the big city, and sing her own songs.

For those addicted to sweet simplicity, this sweet, amorphous, tiny play should be the ultimate refreshment.

Much in the same vein as Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, the three characters--the old farmer, his granddaughter, the author's alter ego--radiate homespun goodness and make much ado about nature. ("The earth is like a good woman; it takes old men like us to keep her happy.") Much like Faulkner, there is a symbiotic relationship between old and young.

The raison d'etre of this production is to see noted set designer Ron Newell, in a rare acting appearance, pull a Sidney Poitier/ George C. Scott acting feat, portraying two characters of different races in one play, giving two salt-of-the-earth performances for the price of one (with South African accents). As cagey grandpa Abraam Jonkers, struggling to figure out how to keep his daughter down on the farm, and the white, Atticus Finch-like do-gooder author, Newell is a powerful shot of moonshine.

As beloved granddaughter Veronica, the embodiment of youth, earth, and everything that grows and thrives, newcomer Kishia Williamson beams doeish enchantment. She woos the audience just by the way she puts her soul into her listening. Can an exclusive contract with Disney be far behind?

Sarah May directs with the serene implacability of Mother Nature, filling every nuance with a thriving life force and impeccable timing.

Valley Song is a solid bonanza: a rich, wholesome evening for those who do their shopping at the Nature Company.


Valley Song, through February 14 at Ensemble Theatre, 3130 Mayfield Rd., 216-321-2930.