If you're one of those who thinks the Hale Center Theater's stock in trade is fluffy, frothy, family fare, then I recommend a visit to HCT's "The Hasty Heart," a dramatic, but subtly humorous World War II tale that originally played on Broadway (and was later turned into a fine Hollywood film with Ronald Reagan and Richard Todd).
"The Hasty Heart," directed by John and Mary Williams, takes place in a convalescent ward in a temporary British government hospital somewhere in Burma in the Southeast Asian Command.Five of the six beds in the small, bamboo hut are occupied when the play opens - by Yank, a feisty Georgia cracker with a stuttering problem; Digger, an easy-going Aussie chap; Kiwi, a lanky New Zealander (the mosquitos love him - his feet stick out beyond the netting on his bunk); Tommy, an obese, giggling Briton who snores to distraction, and Blossom, a Basuto warrior who's unable to speak or understand English.
(And lest you think that a non-speaking role can't be taken seriously, the Hale Center Theater's older sister theater in Glendale, Calif., has an annual awards program, in which the entire year's productions are judged by a panel of guest critics. Last season they awarded the "best actor" prize to the fellow who played Blossom.)
Yank, we learn early on, harbors an intense dislike for Scots.
"I hate all Scots," he tells his convalescing comrades, when the subject comes up during a conversation. "You should have known my G-g-grandfather Angus. There were only two infallible beings to his way of thinking: Angus McDonald and God. Sometimes God was wrong, but never Grandfather Angus!"
When Margaret, the nurse, hears Yank's complaints about Scots, she tells him: "Then you don't understand them. They say that God broke the mold after He made the Scot."
"I'm sure he did," replies Yank, "right over the Scot's head!"
Shortly after we get acquainted with the five patients currently in the ward, the hospital's colonel pays the boys a visit - and gives them a difficult assignment. He advises them that another soldier is being moved into their ward who has been operated on to remove not only shrapnel, but one of his kidneys. The operation was a success, he reports, but it's been discovered that the man's remaining kidney is defective and he probably has only six weeks to live.
The colonel has decided to go against army policy and won't tell the injured sergeant that his prognosis is terminal. The officer informs the five patients that their job is to befriend the man - without letting on that they know he is going to die soon.
"Yank, would you want to know it, if you were going to die?" Kiwi asks the American trooper.
"I am going to d-d-die some d-d-day. And I'd prefer to let God surprise me," Yank replies.
But Yank is about to face a surprising turn of events. And its a situation that injects an element of prejudice into the proceedings. The new patient about to enter the ward is, of course, a Scot - Sgt. Lachlen McLachlen of the renowned Cameron Highlanders Regiment.
"Lachie," as he is nick-named by the others, is sullen, angry and completely aloof. He doesn't have any friends and he certainly doesn't want to waste time acquiring any while he's recuperating.
During the next couple of weeks, there are ample amounts of both humor and tension as the patients try to cut through Lachie's stubborn temperment.
"The Hasty Heart," with its variety of dialects and personalities, is a challenging, difficult work. But the HCT cast we saw on opening night pulled it off. These were not just cardboard characters in a World War II comic book - they were flesh-and-blood people we cared about.
Since the entire production is double-cast, it may be awkward to single out particular actors - but Warren Holz as Lachie, Anne Madsen as Margaret and Gary Winterholler as Yank were standouts.
(We'd like to take a look at the second cast sometime to see how Bob Bedore, a long-time HCT favorite, Laura Reynolds and Blayne Wiley do in the same roles.)
"They say that sorrow is born in a hasty heart," Lachie tells his new friends after they have given him something he's never had before - a birthday party and a lovingly presented gift.
But for local theatergoers, sorrow could also come from not making haste to the Hale Center Theater box office to assure that you'll have seats for this beautifully written, warmly presented play.
As John Williams says in his program notes, "The great story of `The Hasty Heart' illustrates that individuals can rise above cultural prejudice. . . . The great lesson of life is to learn to love all."