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A CurtainUp Review
All Under Heaven

By Joe Cervelli

If you played the word association game and the name Pearl S. Buck came up undoubtedly the response would be The Good Earth. Yet after spending a homey evening at the Century Theatre where the impressive new one-woman show entitled All Under Heaven is playing you might think twice before answering. Much of the engrossing evening is the result of Valerie Harper's (yes of Rhoda Morgenstern fame) remarkably persuasive performance.

While this is a solo performance there is an array of characters whom Ms. Buck has met throughout her life. With a slight limpish gait and a moderately creaky voice one is reminded of an old school teacher or the feisty roles attributed to Katherine Hepburn. As Buck, Ms. Harper has a gentle, enveloping style .

The play takes place about one year prior to Ms. Buck's death in the office of her home in Danby, Vermont. She is anxiously awaiting a visa to arrive before her next venture to her beloved China where, as the daughter of missionaries, she spent most of her youth . As designed by Michael Schweikardt it is a comfy New England set with stone fireplace with an array of pictures atop of those whom have meant a great deal to her in her many travels. There is an old sturdy desk along with a few wooden chairs. This is the home of a woman whose frugality is part of her personality, as is her generous spirit.

She begins to speak of her early life in Chinking to which lighting designer John Wade transports us by developing a red tint and silhouettes of branches in the background. What follows is a dramaturgy of events that has Ms. Harper impressively transform herself into the various people in Pearl's life. With her face and body scrunched in the chair Ms. Harper begins by conjuring up the old nanny, Alma, who was such a huge influence upon her life. She then turns into the gentle yet forceful mother who encouraged her to go to an American college and become well educated -- much to the dismay of her father, a fire and damnation preacher who felt woman belonged in the home. He looked upon his daughter with little admiration even when she was awarded the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes. More shockingly, there are also quotes from Robert Frost and William Faulkner deriding her being awarded these esteemed awards.

Pearl's adult life included her first marriage which she calls "seventeen of the longest years." One of her two daughters was severely retarded and Ms. Harper's face is etched with lines of pain and weariness as she poignantly recalls her anger at the doctors who failed to help her and her acceptance that her daughter will never become normal.

After a life threatening operation she and her second husband (her publisher) adopted seven children. Appalled by the discriminatory treatment of Asian children fathered by US GI's, Pearl also set about to establish an adoption agency to rescue some of the many children who had been put into mental institutions for a lack of a better place. At an organizational meeting in her home to which Oscar Hammerstein had been invited, she looks directly at the famed composer and announces "You have to be carefully taught to hate." It makes for an amusing moment, even if it's not made clear whether this is how the song by that name became part of the musical South Pacific. When Welcome House, the organization established for the homeless Asian children, attracted socialites who wanted to be a part of this "in" thing, we hear Buck's -haughty voice imitating these insincere sycophants.

One particularly riveting episode transports us to China during the revolution. Amid sounds of exploding bombs and a sky filled with the light from the explosions, Ms. Buck scurries across her office looking for a safe refuge. She is in a state of such utter terror that for a moment you wonder if the set has changed and we are in a war ravaged locale. It is a scene executed with thrilling realism.

The play also covers the McCarthy hearings. Buck , a fervent integrationist, came under attack for her friendship with Paul Robeson and other African-Americans as well as her abhorrence of the Japanese internment camps.

In any loving tribute, there needs to be a very clear attempt not to idolize the subject to the point of being so subjectively enamored that objectivity plays no part. The co-authors do lean somewhat heavily in this direction. One of the few shortcomings allowed to show through is her tendency to overdulge in singing her own praises. There are also signs of a certain gullibility as indicated by reference to a friendship (if there were was more it's never clearly stated) with a younger man whom she provides with money for his antique business -- much to the chagrin of her children.

The lack of objectivity notwithstanding, Rob Ruggiero's artful direction,and Ms. Harper's consummate performance make All Under Heaven a finely tuned achievement.

Written by: Dyke Garrison and Valerie Harper
Directed by Rob Ruggiero
Starring: Valerie Harper
Set Design: Michale Schweikardt
Costume Design: Peg Carbonneau
Lighting Design: John Wade
Sound Design: Ron Barnett
Century Theatre, 111 E.15th St. (212/239-6200)
Performances: Mon.-Sat. 8; Wed. & Sat. 2; Sun @ 3
Opened 11/16/98
Reviewed 11/16/98 by Joe Cervelli

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© Elyse Sommer, November 1998