REVIEW – Valley of the Heart – San Jose Stage Company

A Bay Area native, I’ve lived in San Jose for over 15 years now, and I’m always amused (and yes, a bit irritated) when someone claims there is nothing to do and no History here. It’s a blatant misconception and it makes me glad when a show like Valley of the Heart at San Jose Stage comes around. This is a show that stirs a lot of pride, conversation and certainly some head shaking, but it proves we have a history, a present and a future of diverse and interesting culture. Its epic coverage of the years leading up to and through World War II as it relates specifically to two San Jose families is an interesting and (at least not for me) never before seen intertwining of Japanese, Mexican, Chicano and ultimately American cultures on stage.

I use the word epic above, and I do so with little exaggeration as the topics are heavy, complex and ones often left out of the history books. The exposition, stats and facts are laid on thick during the 3 hour production, which helped to make up for the 90 seconds spent covering Japanese Internment camps in my 10th grade Contemporary History class. True, there were times I felt like perhaps an even better outlet for this story might have been a Ken Burns miniseries; not necessarily intended for consumption in a single sitting, but overall I can’t say the material itself wasn’t engaging. There was some redundancy to be sure that might have been reduced, but I wouldn’t say it was excessive; just a lot to cover. While it was a substantial amount to absorb, I think its relevance and, at least for me the newness of this information, was easy enough to follow in the format provided. The subtitle of this play is “a Kubiki Corrido” and a traditional Kabuki style play would take up an entire day, so perhaps this trial for modern attention spans comes with some intentional cultural context. At the end of the day, I think the plays length wouldn’t have been a deterrent had all the other storytelling pieces come together a bit better.

Some of the chemistry and cadence felt off, forced, subdued or unbalanced, and I wasn’t sure if it was elements of the kabuki that were intentionally being channeled or if there were in fact weak links in the performances. There was a vibrancy and sincere innocence in the performances of Ben and Tito (very commendable), an even keeled, believable earnestness in Joe as well. I kind of loved the unpredictable “tellnovella” quality of Paula and there were some very strong moments (comedic and poignant) from both the family patriarchs. While Maruca and Calvin had the largest arcs to travel in some ways, and I liked where they ultimately ended up, I wasn’t always totally convinced of their early choices. Thelma and Hana felt the least connected and again, I couldn’t tell if that was an intentional stylistic choice or something else. I felt all the passion and conflict from Ben but felt Thelma was colder and more distant, unwarmed by the relationship she was supposed to be “breaking rules” for. This play is by no means a love letter, but it certainly needs the love story to work for us to keep following. This is a dark depiction of a dark period in our history and while a fascinating and important period in time that I applaud being covered, I wanted to feel for more attachment to the characters living the story and less like it was being told, lectured or recited.

There were a handful of technicalities that slightly bothered me too. Aging a child realistically from infant to toddler poised a challenge and clothes seemed far too clean for several of the circumstances our characters found themselves in.  On the plus side, the set was fantastic and I absolutely loved the use of projections (a device I usually extremely dislike). The way of moving scenery (kurogo) was consistent, meaningful and a poetic layer I very much appreciated as well.

I often think of theater as a universal way to break through barriers and unite people, but it occurred to me early on that this was not necessarily a play “for” me, which ended up being quite a positive take away for me. There’s an additional benefit to being in an audience of a play that resonates with others in a way that you can’t possibly. To hear laughter from a section of the theater that is clearly understanding a line, inflection or circumstance that could pass you by with little notice, is a powerful privilege. Maybe it’s the director in me, but I love it when an audience is moved, even when I might not be. That ups the pleasure and certainly speaks to the value of telling the types of stories that are covered in this show.

That being said, contained within the world’s thickest program, just shy of a war and peace word count, there was still seemingly valuable information missing. For those without the direct cultural reference or theatrical knowledge the following might have been even more helpful.

1) Mexican and Japanese glossary – while certainly not necessary in some cases to understand the gist, it would have been nice to have an option to know what some of the repeated phrases and words used were. Translation of the Corridos sung in the play and the origin of the Japanese song sung might have made a nice referential accompaniment.  Then again, perhaps this minimal language alienation is a small taste of the struggle that immigrants potentially experience upon arriving in a country with a non-native tongue.  I could buy that… still a nagging part of me felt like I might be missing some of the art and connection without just a bit of help or a more robust performance.

2) Elements of Kabuki. While I picked up a little bit with my limited high school exposure to the art form, reading up on Kabuki afterwards revealed a lot more of the stylistic approaches that I recognized from the play. There’s also a political importance of Kabuki, which nicely solidifies a connection to the actual plot/history of Valley of the Heart and the similarities to the cultural through lines. A lot more parallels came to light with a bit of post-show research making a second viewing an intriguing thought to entertain. I couldn’t help but think how much clever artistic staging and in some ways enhancement of the performance might have been present that I just didn’t pick up.

I’m rarely ever inspired to do pre or post show research, so clearly this play was compelling enough to inspire me to want to close the gaps in my knowledge to better appreciate what I experienced. There’s a lot to like about this play and I desperately wanted to love it, but for me it seemed a bit unpolished, slow in places and too dry to really seal the deal. And so, 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for what I feel is a good production of a good play that really might be great under some slightly different circumstances or even a second viewing. Valley of the Heart plays through March 20th at the San Jose Stage Company in Downtown San Jose.

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