Benjamin looks longingly at the beautiful Thelma, gazing at her while beads of sweat protrude down her gentle face. While hours are spent under the sunny blaze of the fields, a love story is formed, a story that would be even more beautiful if it weren’t so tragic.
When Benjamin and Thelma embark on a union, they don’t really comprehend what they are signing up for. After all, he is a Mexican, an employee of the Japanese family that owns the farm he and his family work on, also the place Benjamin’s family calls home. The Yamaguchi family sleeps in the big house, while the Montaño family make due in the small shack.
Luis Valdez’ epic story now playing at San Jose Stage Company is entitled “Valley of the Heart,” a title that does double duty, alluding to the nearly 400 Japanese-American owned farms in the Santa Clara Valley alone, people who were forced into labor camps without any due process for four years beginning in 1942, a knee-jerk reaction to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. It also alludes to matters of the heart, a love story that makes Romeo and Juliet seem like a minor inconvenience by comparison.
The play is set in that same Valley at this time in history, when places like Cupertino have yet to meet people like Jobs or Wozniak, here just another vast, boring town not named San Francisco. Oh sure, there is plenty of land and lots of money growing out of the ground in the form of cucumbers and strawberries, land owned by families with Japanese surnames and firm American roots.
The snapshots of both families are striking in their similarities. There’s a distinct desire for the American dream, led forcefully by the patriarch of the Yamaguchis, Ichiro (A wide-ranging portrayal by Randall Nakano). He is grounded by his wife Hana (A sympathetic Christina Chu) and his two children, the UC Berkeley student Joe (Ryan Takemiya) and loyal daughter Thelma (Melanie Arii Mah).
Described as a memory play, the memories are brought forth by Benjamin, played here with gusto by Lakin Valdez, Luis Valdez’ youngest son. This is a powerhouse performance that is rich in scope, a visceral turn that is equal parts gentle and equal parts fire. While Benjamin’s father Cayetano (Gustavo Mellado) is the revered patriarch, it is really Benjamin that carries the burden of sanity for the family, which includes his mother Paula (Rosa Maria Escalante) and siblings Ernesto (Andres Ortiz) and Maruca (Christy Sandoval).
Make no mistake, this is an ambitious piece of work, a piece that does what ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle believed to be the hallmark of theatre – to enlighten and entertain.
The enlightening comes from the history that Luis Valdez not only researched, but lived. And in this play, there is plenty of research. The wonderful thing about the play is that it never feels as if we are sitting down in a history class while a play taught me about Japanese internment. Things like the Farm Security Administration and Heart Mountain, Wyoming were certainly exposition elements, but functioned more as essential plot points. These were realities that both families faced daily.
While there may have been a bit of imbalance in some performances, the hallmark of the production is some magnificent portrayals that stretched each actor’s range.
Mah certainly dove headfirst into her role, creating some outstanding truths as she discovered both joy and pain in each moment. Randall Nakano, especially in act two, connected deeply to some fierce emotional demands, with a certain pathos-fueled moment that has heartbreaking consequences, epitomizing so much of the struggles that the innocent Japanese-Americans experienced.
While Anthony Chan’s turn as safe Japanese boy and preferred partner for Thelma, Calvin Sakamoto, provides plenty of comic relief, it is another moment where his range powers through, a young man who has reached his breaking point. And Escalante, who is always solid, brought forth with her a piece of revered El Teatro Campesino history, one of the original members of the company who is still going strong after all these years.
But make no mistake, the show rides mightily on Lakin Valdez’ sharp shoulders, a man facing a surreal struggle brooding deeply as Benjamin, a man who is breaking down trying to navigate two worlds.
Lakin has always struck me as the son who most resembles his father, facial features that are sharp and intense, with a deep and rich timbre in his voice. Notice the way he sits and watches his family as they celebrate La Noche Buena with tamales in the big house. A house on a farm for anyone in the Great Depression was magical, but for Benjamin, it should be his wife and child in that kitchen, a fact seemingly glossed over by his family. It’s the visceral reactions built from Meisnerian listening that bring the audience closer to the proceedings – a stony stare, the slam of a chair. The play rests on his broad shoulders, and he delivers moment by moment.
The set is truly an homage to the new technology that is all the rage in theatre nowadays, with sharp high definition projections and classic Teatro touches, namely fruit boxes that dot the stage. Joe Cardinalli’s set design is wonderful, creating two distinct worlds that are fused together consistently. And Joe Cedillo’s soundscape, along with Michael Palumbo’s lighting design helped support the visuals that pierced the story. Finally, David Murakami’s projections, using a blend of animation and historical footage is masterful.
Now can the show be a little bit tighter? I would certainly say so. The play, to its credit, moves wonderfully at nearly three hours. And while there can be some tightening in areas, all of the information is essential to the overall texture of the story.
My paternal grandmother was a young girl in the 1940’s and grew up in Cutler, California, a little Valley town about 35 miles south of Fresno. She had mentioned to my father how one day she had lots of Japanese friends and classmates, and the next day, they were all gone. They were gone for the most unjust of reasons, and more than 70 years later, in an election year, the cruel realities of that time seem to be returning in the ugliest rhetoric imaginable.
“Valley of the Heart” is a sweeping, epic tale that’s not really a tale at all. While peaks and valleys weakened and strengthened both families, it was their heart that powered through in the direst of circumstances, their reverence for the earth grounding their existence.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
San Jose Stage and El Teatro Campesino present “Valley of the Heart”
Written and directed by Luis Valdez
The Word: A sweeping, epic story that is filled with heart and passion.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through March 13th
San Jose Stage Company
490 S. First Street
San Jose, CA
Tickets range from $30 – $65
For tickets, call (408) 283-7142 or visit www.thestage.org