John Patrick’s The Hasty Heart is that theatrical rarity—a comedy-drama that is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking, a life-affirming story about impending death that is, amazingly, oximoronically, a feel-good tearjerker.

For a play that closed after only 204 performances on Broadway, The Hasty Heart has had quite an impressive afterlife. A 1949 film version starred Richard Todd, Patricia Neal, and a future politician named Reagan.   Gregory Harrison, Cheryl Ladd, and Perry King appeared in a lauded TV adaptation in ’83. And the play itself has gone on to become a regional and community theater favorite.

Glendale Centre Theatre now presents The Hasty Heart in an in-the-round production beautifully directed by two-time Grammy nominee Amick Byram, a staging that offers ample proof why Patrick’s sixty-five year old play has stood the test of time.  Superbly acted by an all-around terrific cast, The Hasty Heart is guaranteed to put a smile on your face even as tears stream down your cheeks.

Set in the convalescent ward of a temporary British General Hospital in South East Asia during World War II, The Hasty Heart opens with the impending arrival of Lachlen McLachlen (Kevin Stidham), a wounded Scottish soldier assigned to occupy the ward’s sole empty bed.  His soon-to-be ward-mates are an international bunch: American Yank (Ian Littleworth), Australian Digger (John Teague), New Zealander Kiwi (Matt Little), Englishman Tommy (Paul Reese), and Blossom (Haile D’Alan), an indigenous Basuto who neither speaks nor understands English, save the word “blossom.”  Colonel “Cobwebs” (Skip Pipo) informs the men and Sister Margaret (Lindsey Garrett), the nurse in charge of their ward, that although Lachlen appears to be in perfect health as he recuperates from the loss of a kidney, the 21-year-old has only about six weeks to live, his remaining kidney being incurably defective. The colonel goes on to instruct the soldiers and Sister Margaret that it is their duty to a) keep this news from him and b) make his final weeks as pleasant as possible.  (FYI, “sister” means “nurse,” not “nun,” in British English, and Sister Margaret is not only single and available, but quite a looker as well.)

The colonel’s assignment is hardly the most cheerful of tasks, even under the best of circumstances, but when the handsome young “Lachie” turns out to be one of the most abrasive, unfriendly, and all-around “difficult” individuals ever to have walked the face of the earth, the boys (and Sister Margaret) have their hands full simply resisting the urge to throttle the disagreeable Scotsman.

At her wit’s end following two weeks of unpleasantness, Sister Margaret gets an idea. What if the boys and she were to give Lachie a Scottish Highlander’s outfit for his birthday, kilt and all? Might not this display of friendship pierce the cranky Scot’s armor and reach his hardened heart?

It’s here that the power of Patrick’s play to provoke simultaneous tears and laughter kicks in, and with the entire GCT cast giving perfectly splendid performances, the audience is in for one of the most emotional (and emotionally satisfying) theatrical rollercoaster rides ever.

Reese is a delight as chubby jokester Tommy, Teague puts his native Australian accent to good use in a jaunty turn as Digger, and D’Alan’s silences convey volumes as the nearly mute Blossom.  Skip Pipo does his accustomed assured work as the colonel and and Joe DeSoto stands out too in a brief turn as the ward orderly. 

A trio of USC Class Of 2010 drama grads are shining examples of Trojan talent. Garrett’s touching turn as Sister Margaret is just the right blend of girl-next-door and stiff-upper-lip British professional.  Little makes a strong impression as good-natured New Zealander Kiwi. Best of all is musical theater triple-threat Littleworth proving his straight play mettle as stutterer Yank in a performance that starts out strong, and then gets even more powerful as Yank’s love-hate relationship with Lachie reaches its zenith.

Finally, there is English-born-and-raised Stidham’s unforgettable performance as Lachie, so pigheaded at first that you want to throttle him, then touchingly, joyously transformed by the first friendship he has known in his life. The depth and subtlety the young actor brings to Lachie announces the arrival of “one to watch” in what will hopefully be only the first of many L.A. stage appearances.

Tim Dietlan’s authentic looking set (note the use of bamboo) makes the audience flies on the hospital ward’s four walls, his lighting subtly enhancing the play’s varied moods. Only during Lachie and Sister Margaret’s poignant scenes together does GCT’s in-the-round setup prove a negative, the faces of audience members becoming a distracting backdrop to emotional scenes and a hindrance to full emotional involvement. Thumbs up to Angela Wood and The Costume Shoppe’s excellent costumes and Jonathan Byram’s original music, particularly effective in the second act. Props are mostly period with the egregiously anachronistic exception of a pair of contemporary trade paperbacks (with barcodes no less!). Lexi Pappas is assistant director and Paul Reid is stage manager.

It’s been ten years since I last saw The Hasty Heart.  Glendale Centre Theatre’s felicitous revival makes me aware of how much I’ve missed my favorite John Patrick play.  (He also wrote The Teahouse Of The August Moon and The Curious Savage, and a host of Hollywood films in the ‘50s and ‘60s.) The Hasty Heart may be sixty-five this year, but it’s hardly in need of retirement, as this smashing production makes perfectly clear.

Glendale Centre Theatre, 324 N. Orange St., Glendale.

–Steven Stanley
July 21, 2010

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