Valley of the Heart, at the Mark Taper Forum Oct. 30 – Dec 9, 2018, takes us on a journey from the winter of 1941, WWII, to the Fall,1945; from Santa Clara Valley, to Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming, and in the mind and memory of Benjamin Montaño, passionately played by Lakin Valdez.
Luis Valdez, author of Valley of the Heart, founded El Teatro Campesino (the Farm Workers Theater) in 1965, which originally performed in the fields of Central California for the purpose of unionizing the Farm workers. He is now an award winning Playwright and Director, who has brought a moving theatrical offering of the plight of two immigrant families, Chicano and Japanese, both vying for a small piece of the American pie, yet balancing on the precipice of survival and destruction. The Campesinos (peasant workers) are part of Valdez’ historical soul. His work with the UFW (United Farm Workers), Cesar Chavez and the Great Delano Grape Strike of California’s Central Valley, brings a reality and legitimacy that moves the heart.
The Central Valley, now the home of Apple, Inc, was once known for its vast tracts of rich land, abundance of crops and fruit trees. The opening monologue with the aging Benjamin Montaño, wrapped in a woolen blanket, and seated in a wheel chair, speaks of his disconnected remembrances. In contrast, behind him is the beautifully projected colors of open fields blooming on vast land tracts that once existed. The Shoji Screens are skillfully maneuvered to transform the backdrop into vast breathtaking farmland, masterfully created by scenic and projection designs of John Iacovelli and David Murakami.
Lights come up on the Montaño and Yamaguchi families at their separate breakfast tables; we are introduced to their individual needs and struggles, class and generations. The hard work of the Sensei father, Ichiro Yamaguchi, sensitively played by Randall Nakano, finally is owner of his own farm with his fragile and traditional wife, Hana, played by Joy Osmanski. Ichiro insists it is going to be his legacy to his family. Even though they are obedient, the desire of Nisei (second generation) children, Thelma (Teruko) and Joe (Yoshi) appear to want to own their own lives, which becomes clearer with each small skirmish.
Next door, we see the hope of Cayetano Montaño, the Patriarch of the family, played aptly by Daniel Valdez. His blusterings indicate his concerns to be able to earn enough money at the Yamaguchi’s farm to support his family. Rose Portillo’s strong portrayal of Paula Montaño, the matriarch, tempers and balances the fire with a nuanced and motherly demeanor for her husband and children Benjamin, Tito (Moses castro) and their sister, Maruca (Christy Sandoval). Cayetano, with his desire to own ‘something’ after so many years of toiling in the fields, creates the basis for an initial conflict with Ishiro.
As we move from the daily mundane planting and harvesting it becomes clear that there’s a deep attraction developing in the fields. In an unmonitored moment, the forbidden working-class Benjamin Montaño, and the college bound Thelma Yamaguchi, the spirited and intelligent daughter of Ichiro, played by Melanie Arii Mah, find room to reach out to each other, and their flirtation becomes a playful hide-and-go- seek, which morphs into a rhythmic “picking and harvesting” song and movement piece. The couples move past and around each other, reaching, withdrawing and eventually coming together.
This change happens in spite of the fact that she has been promised to her father’s chosen husband, the privileged arrogant Calvin Sakamoto played by Scott Keiji Takeda. Takeda transforms this character quite aptly throughout the play, although at times a bit cartoonish. And even though Calvin’s dream is unrealized with Thelma, his purpose becomes vital as a kind of Greek Chorus, foreshadowing the painful future of the Yamaguchis, their friends and family.
Then with shocking suddenness, Paula Montaña delivers the news of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Within days and weeks, an edict from Washington prompts a panic they know will change all of their lives, perhaps forever. Both the Montaño and Yamaguchi families must find a way to survive.
Valley of the Heart is a vital look-back and remembrance of the life-changing decisions that were made in haste in the name of fear of “the other.”
Will we remember, acknowledge and prevent this from happening again? Valdez has presented a soulful, revelatory warning in the Valley of the Heart. It is not to be missed, if only as a reminder.
“Valley of the Heart” will play through December 9 at the Mark Taper Forum. For tickets and information, please click here, or call (213) 628-2772.
Featured image: The cast in the Center Theatre Group production of Luis Valdez’s “Valley of the Heart.” Presented in association with El Teatro Campesino. Photo: All Uses © 2018 Craig Schwartz.