Native American poet and musician Joy Harjo is a woman who communes with spirits, and in this music-embellished piece, she opines about struggle, survival and transcendence in a powerful and eloquent voice. The narrative begins with an allegory about power, but the writer soon switches gears, vaulting back to her impoverished childhood in racist Oklahoma, where her mother, who sometimes sang in local bars, struggled to make her marriage work with her philandering, alcoholic father. After he deserted the family, Harjo’s mom hooked up with a charmer who turned out to be a far worse villain. Eventually, Harjo escaped to the larger world, but the price of freedom was alienation from her beloved parent. At the core of the piece is the writer’s search for reconciliation and the healing of her fragmented spirit — a healing that, we understand from the beginning, is not merely for one woman but for all. One of the show’s great virtues is Larry Mitchell’s expressive guitar accompaniment, sometimes in tandem with Harjo’s own lyrical tenor sax. The production has weaknesses, however, among them the performer’s delivery, which is sometimes distant and strangely without affect, under Randy Reinholz’ direction. Also, Harjo at times moves awkwardly. Scenic designer Susan Baker Scharpf’s ethereal backdrop — with its outline of a horse and human head seemingly whipped by the wind — is wonderfully appropriate to the spirit of the work but nonetheless too large for the space, and constraining. Autry National Center, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 29. (323) 667-2000

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Starts: March 12. Continues through March 29, 2009

LA Weekly