Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Valley of the Heart
San Jose Stage Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of I Do! I Do!

Lakin Valdez and Melanie Arii Mah
Photo by Dave Lepori
From the midst of a stage-wide, nighttime panorama of 2001 Silicon Valley emerges an old Japanese man in a wheelchair who, bent over, glances up without seeing and says, "I see all my memories." From the shadows of his Alzheimer-rattled mind and from moving shadows behind projected scenery of now green fields emerge those who will relive his life story and that of two immigrant cultures of this same Valley caught sixty years prior in war-enflamed fear and bigotry.

Grand and epic in theme and scope while intensely personal in individual stories, Luis Valdez's Valley of the Heart receives its world premiere through a partnership between two award-winning companies, San Jose Stage and El Teatro Campesino. The resulting three-plus hour production never falters for a minute in holding its audience captivated by a slice of important local and American history that probably few arrived knowing. Further, the outstanding cast, director, and production team take a riveting, educating script and use its words of personal sacrifice, family devotion, and romantic intrigue to grab the heartstrings of everyone present.

Two rural, first-generation families live next door yet worlds apart in what was once farm-rich Santa Clara Valley in the San Francisco Bay Area. Each household struggles to remain proud and true to its rich heritage traditions, with the young adult members beginning to test the boundaries of set, parental ways brought from the motherland. The Yamaguchi family owns land rich in broccoli fields and is dependent on their sharecropping Montaño neighbors to help tend and harvest the crops. One family lives comfortably enough in a large farmhouse while the other lives with proud dignity in housing more shanty-like than not.

The Japanese and Mexican-American families intermingle politely while keeping their distance, except for a behind-the-scenes, increasingly hot romance between Benjamin Montaño (the younger version of our opening narrator) and Thelma Yamaguchi. That Thelma is contracted by her parents to a college-going Japanese guy named Calvin Sakamoto and feels obligated to follow their wishes does not keep her from becoming impregnated by her Latino lover. A quick elopement (where he must claim to be a Yuki Indian in order to get around existing laws prohibiting marriage between their races) and the resulting, imminent family crises are quickly superseded by December 7, 1941. That horrible Day of Infamy soon upends and repositions both families, as the Yamaguchi father is imprisoned and the other family members are shipped ignobly to a horrendous internment camps in far-off Wyoming. Meanwhile, the Montaños move into their former boss's house and take over his farm for wartime food production.

The wartime stories of these two families that most of America's majority at that time would rather spit at than look at play out in heart-touching and heartbreaking struggles as they slowly and painfully merge into one new and extended family, finding their patriotic places to serve a country that rejects them.

Lakin Valdez brings a compelling, convincing, and strong persona as the story's narrator Benjamin, who must walk a precarious tightrope both in helping his Mexican-American family take advantage of their sudden wartime inheritance and in supporting and loving his wife and baby son in their horrendous internment hundreds of miles away from the Cupertino farm. Mr. Valdez visibly and achingly shows in voice, face, and body Benjamin's intensity of romantic attraction, family responsibility, and inner battles of conscience as he balances the demands and needs of his two families. The focus of his early attraction and his later devotion, Thelma, is played equally well by Melanie Arii Mah, who brings a wide range of abilities to play a coy and sensual lover, compassionate and anchoring daughter and sister, and suffering and stalwart mother and wife. Together, theirs is a love story that binds in beautiful and gut-wrenching ties the larger stories of their two families grappling with the challenges and sorrows of a nation at war.

Gustavo Mellado and Randall Nakano are the two patriarchs, Cayetano and Ichiro, of the Montaño and Yamaguchi clans. Each transitions in moving and visceral manners from proud, firm-voiced, and full-of-heart-and-humor heads of household to war-and-age-diminished shadows of their former selves. Their wives Paula and Hana (Rosa Maria Escalante and Christina Chu, respectively) are night-and-day apart in background, looks, and demeanor, yet each is clearly the emotional hub and soul of her family. The two actresses brilliantly display a mother's special love and heartache, a wife's ways of both traditionally honoring and subtly shaping her husband's wishes, and an immigrant woman's power to persevere against odds so stacked against her.

Christy Sandoval is the often sassy and independence-seeking, yet always devoted and loving daughter Maruca Montaño, who saunters about with an air all her own. Benjamin and Maruca's brother Tito is played by the wide-smiling, playful Andres Ortiz whose eyes sparkle when teasing his siblings and deepen with determination when he sets out to serve his country. In the other family, Ryan Takemiya is Yoshi Yamaguchi, a quiet, solid support to his parents but also a young man whose courageous resolve shines forth in his whole being as he chooses to ignore America's inhumane treatment of him and his family and to raise his hand also to serve Uncle Sam.

Rounding out the speaking roles is the brash, cocky, and emotional firecracker Calvin Sakamoto (Anthony Chan). As the spurned intended of Thelma, he initially explodes in anger but then settles reluctantly and eventually respectively as another devoted member of this newly formed extended family.

Directing his own premiere, Luis Valdez powerfully employs theatrical and musical traditions of both the Japanese and Mexican heritages. Rafael (TJ) Toribio and Lee-Ron move quietly in and out, dressed from head to toe in black to serve as stagehands called kuroko in traditional Japanese kabuki theatre. Moving props, serving as the front fenders and headlights of vehicles, and even performing as mimed marriage officials, they silently and artfully serve in many capacities. Calling on the Mexican heritage of corrido, a narrative ballad, Mr. Valdez has effectively employed original music fitting for both nationalities (composed by Roy and P.J. Hirabayashi and Noe Montoya) that fills interludes and swells to an intermingling-of-traditions finale sung by the two-now-one families.

Continuing a San Jose Stage Company proven strength, David Murakami has created an incredible sequence of stage-filling projections that enhance geographic, historical, and storytelling aspects of the production. His efforts enable the realistic, detail-rich domiciles of farmhouse, shanty, and barracks designed by Joe Cardinalli to fully support the script. Costumes of Lupe Valdez that show traditional, economic-status, and time-period sensitivity; lighting by Michael Palumbo that never misses in allowing actions and emotions to blend effectively; and sound by Joe Cedillo that brings crickets, automobiles, and slamming doors at just the right moment into the story all complete this close-to-perfect set of efforts by the production team. (The one fault I find with the set is a recessed center whose projections are unfortunately and largely missed by those sitting on the sides of the crescent-shaped arena.)

Perhaps not since 1941 have such virulent sentiments against other American citizens been voiced by political leaders and want-to-be leaders as we are now hearing about Muslim immigrants and citizens. Luis Valdez, San Jose Stage Company, and El Teatro Campesino have teamed together to present a world premiere Valley of the Heart that deserves to be seen and that needs to be seen by many sold-out audiences, both in today's Silicon Valley and hopefully on stages throughout the nation.

The joint production of Valley of the Heart by San Jose Stage Company and El Teatro Campesino will continue in an already extended run through March 13, 2016 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street, San Jose, California. Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.