“The Hasty Heart” — DON SHIRLEY’S TOP 10

Sunday, December 26, 1999
Don Shirley Is The Times’ Theater Writer

There are theatre productions that often stand out because the muses Thaleia and Melpomene agreed to smile on mere mortals who scurry about trying to put these shows together.

The Hasty Heart at the Pacific Resident Theatre has definitely been smiled upon by these two muses resulting in one of the most brilliantly staged productions of the year – – – anywhere!

Not quite a war story – not entirely a hospital tale – glazed with a light touch of romance, this evoking and compelling tale by John Patrick echoes a little of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” with some aspects of “M*A*S*H” without the cross-dressing. Since it pre-dated both, one could wonder if this served as grist for one or the other (or both). A makeshift convalescent ward in Burma in 1944 brings together a group of enigmatic patients who will share a life-changing experience giving each a new meaning not just of life, but also of death.

The ensemble is superb, tightly directed by Michael Rothhaar who has molded this cast into a wonderful unit that meshes with synchronized timing, yet flows with the spontaneity of realism. If character development is the key to successful story telling, then Rothhaar comes out way ahead as he meticulously structures subtle changes in some characters and extreme changes in the main characters. Floating like a ribbon across space, the story rises with comedic segments, ebbs with somber scenes and explodes with triumphant discoveries. Each actor has donned a perfect accent appropriate for his nationality and for once we can’t make our traditional complaint that “American actors can’t do a British accent!” Scott Jackson’s portrayal of Lachie is nothing if not inspired carrying the audience along the waves with his mood filled performance. When Lachie is recalcitrant we hate him. When he’s happy we want to cheer with him and the moments when he discovers parts of his soul he never knew he had, we get a lump in our throat and discreetly look for a Kleenex. There are lots of those moments!

That’s not to say that the other cast members are not excellent. Lesley Fera is so good as Sister Margaret you hope that if you ever go to a hospital you’ll get a nurse like her. Fera shows us a woman who hints at why she is dedicated to serving the wounded since her husband was a casualty of war, but we never know why she accepts romance so easily with someone so radically mismatched. Is it pity? Is it compassion? Is it raging hormones begging for relief? We never know, and this works well for the character, adding to her aura of mystery. Ron E. Dickinson is wonderful as Tommy, the British soldier who seems to be complaining about his wife back home all the time, but you can tell by what he says that he misses her deeply. Nathan Mobley plays Digger, the Australian who receives news of the birth of his child giving a new meaning to his life, and Michael Balsley plays New Zealander Kiwi, who never saw a situation on which he could not bet. One of the toughest roles is Blossom who is only given the one word to express whatever feelings he has, “Blossom”! Michael Thomas speaks volumes with his expressions and body language and whenever he says the one word he manages to fold it around an intonation that denotes friendship, concern or any other emotion required.

In a duel of the wills, Yank is the antagonist to Lachlen at first and then becomes his best friend. Keith Stevenson is terrific as the former driver who goes through a complete metamorphosis along with Lachlen. Stevenson is gruff, brusque and arrogant as Yank, yet he finds a layer of compassion and caring within the character and as the two interact there is definite chemistry between them. Christopher Shaw is quite believable as the Colonel and Ron Cohen plays a fast moving and snappy orderly. Adding to the realism is a team of talented “behind the scenes” people that deserve special mention. The great authentic set is designed by Robert Broadfoot, the lighting is by Keith Endo, the sound is by Michael Lonky and the costumes are by Audrey Eisner. Christopher Basile is the Stage Manager and Whitney Whetstone is the Production Manager. Ursula Brooks, Dana Dewes and Molly Schaffer produce.

Even though this story was written in the late 1940’s, the message is still powerful and clear. People need people and human interaction is stronger than any medicine or remedy. Even money can’t substitute for the feeling that one experiences knowing someone cares. The person next to me said the characters were so real and charismatic that she almost didn’t want it to end, but when the end came, the audience stood as one, cheering, applauding and demanding a second curtain call to what is, without a doubt, one of the best plays reviewed in these pages this year.

The production runs through October 14, 2007 at the Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Boulevard, Venice, CA. Reservations at: (310) 822-8392.

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