Peaks and Valleys

'Happy Valley' is equal parts shadow and light

The 1997 handoff of Hong Kong from British to Chinese hands saw a populace accustomed to a free-market, liberal society recoiling at the prospect of Communist repression, a police-state crackdown, and the mandatory donning of deeply unfashionable sportswear. Aurorae Khoo's new play, Happy Valley, tackles that moment on the precipice, and the result, while at times lighter than it perhaps intends to be, is entirely enjoyable, well constructed, and frequently moving.

Sherwin Resurreccion plays Chester, a horse dealer with a fusty accent whose viability is dependent on his connections to the city's colonial aristocracy. His life is complicated by his responsibility to his dead sister's daughter Tuppy (Sara Ochs), a petulant 13-year-old who spends much of her time sparring with her Filipino nanny (Maria Kelly).

Khoo then sets about plucking the audience's heartstrings with above-average dexterity. While the setup isn't without its warmed-over elements (the poor little rich orphan girl, the ne'er-do-well uncle with the heart of gold, and the subsequent introduction of the gold-digging stepmother), Khoo consistently keeps things aboveboard with sharp dialogue and quick pacing.

Resurreccion looks too youthful for his character, and Ochs seems several years too old for hers. Visual incongruities aside, each turns in quite a good performance. Ochs swings from sheltered callowness to shocked numbness once things turn serious (Tuppy, you see, will be set up for what seems at the time to be a dire betrayal). Resurreccion holds up his end of things, with a genuine sense of warmth, and he and Ochs capture the sweetness of their unlikely bond.

With the introduction of Jeany Park as sexy secretary Victoria, Tuppy and Chester's world turns considerably more adult. Anyone who can leave Hong Kong is doing so, and as the old order collapses, Victoria sees in Uncle Chester opportunities of both the amorous and material varieties. Chester can't help himself, and soon enough Victoria has become Mrs. Uncle Chester--a turn of events that sends Tuppy into a trough of adolescent despair.

Park's performance very effectively binds the action together, and she lends flashes of telling vulnerability to the otherwise unlikable Victoria. She also ably leaps into absurdist waters during a series of fantasy interludes. During one, she plays Queen Elizabeth visiting what she calls this "dear little malaria-infested island." In a second, she horse-steps and whinnies as Chester extols her equine virtues. Finally she plays Deng Xiao Ping as a self-loving old dictator promising that the horseracing and dancing will continue in Hong Kong. It's quite a bit of gear shifting, and Park pulls it off.

A number of narrative housekeeping issues cause a degree of distraction. In Tom Mays's domestic cityscape set, it's hard to gauge the level of Tuppy and Chester's affluence. There is a sense that they have fallen in station, but how far and how seriously is hard to ascertain. And when the possibility emerges that youngster Tuppy might be stuck in Hong Kong, it's never explained how she could be expected to survive. Still, these issues are eclipsed in the second act, when director Jennifer Weir's cast finds the emotional heart of this piece and extracts real resonance from it.

In Happy Valley, life is composed of pledges and negotiations, and the critical matter of whether or not they're honored. Chester's pledge to care for Tuppy, and Victoria's assurances that she is carrying his son are lesser metaphors for the collective fear in 1997 that the Chinese were going to renege on peaceful assurances and wreak havoc and mayhem on Hong Kong. Turns out they were mostly happy just to take over tax collection, but by the time fears did not come true, much had changed. This show nicely depicts the consequences of bad decisions along with the mixed and muted ramifications that so often typify the way things play out here in the real world.

 
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