He was a 35-year-old physician when the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, and barely escaped the holocaust that took the lives of more than a quarter of his countrymen. He was a refugee-turned-movie actor, winning an Oscar for his film—and acting—debut as real-life Cambodian journalist Dith Pran. He was a humanitarian who worked to rebuild his shattered country. And after surviving the killing fields, he met his death in the streets of Los Angeles, murdered by members of a predominantly Cambodian street gang.

This was the life—and death—of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, explored by playwright Henry Ong in the powerful Sweet Karma, now getting an exquisitely designed, imaginatively directed, and beautifully acted West Coast Premiere at the Grove Theatre Center.

Jon Jon Briones is Dr. Vichear Lam (as Ong calls Ngor’s stage stand-in), shot to death in Sweet Karma’s opening scene for refusing to hand over a precious locket to a man seemingly uninterested in Lam’s $6000 Rolex.

Vichear Lam’s murder is merely the beginning of a journey on which he will be accompanied by Devi (Pauline Yasuda), his self-described “guide” to a life—and a karma—most of us can scarcely imagine.

Pauline-Yasuda-and-Jon-Jon-Briones-in-Sweet-Karma.-Photo-by-Kevin-Cochran Though Devi’s motives may be different from those of Clarence, the angel who guided George Bailey on his own time travel through a “Wonderful Life,” the journey Vichear takes is a similar one, beginning with a flashback to the day he happened upon former chemistry student Suriya (Rainbow Dickerson) in a Cambodian outdoor market, a chance meeting that would lead to love and marriage, but not to a Hollywood happy ending.

Cut to Tinseltown, where a friend introduces Vichear to casting director Leslie Silver, who is looking for an authentic Cambodian to star in a movie about the country’s infamous killing fields, no matter Vichear’s claims that his knowledge of film is restricted to a John Wayne western he once saw in a Thai refugee camp.

Rainbow-Dickerson-and-Jon-Jon-Briones-in-Sweet-Karma.-Photo-by-Kevin-Cochran In fact, it was to a movie that Vichear took Suriya on their first date, one during which the future spouses discovered that chemistry was not merely the subject he had taught her, but something they shared—a something that would lead to love.

Over the course of its intermissionless ninety minutes, Sweet Karma examines Dr. Vichear Lam’s life, warts and all. A loving husband but not a faithful one. A man whose life-and-death decisions could be rationalized, but not necessarily forgiven, at least not by Vichear himself.

1009752_4820405922725_1909070136_n Ong introduces us to a sprawling cast of supporting characters: a movie director, a Cambodian nurse, a woman giving birth in the midst of the killing fields, an Academy Award presenter, a midwife, a jealous husband, a pregnant lover, and assorted Khmer Rouge soldiers, fundraisers, movie fans, and more, all of them brought to vivid, distinctive life by Kennedy Kabasares and Jully Lee.

Far more than a cookie-cutter stage biography, Sweet Karma weaves multiple threads into a complex tapestry that proves fascinating, informative, and ultimately transcendent.

1016828_4811578542046_1964233459_n Under director Kevin Cochran’s assured, imaginative hand, Ong’s cast of five do richly memorable work.

With her Mona Lisa smile, Yasuda’s Devi is a captivating creation, a guide with considerably more significance to Vichear than meets the eye. Dickerson gives a radiant, multilayered performance as Suriya, whose memory haunts Vichear even without Devi’s prodding. The dynamic duo of Kabasares and Lee create one finely delineated cameo after another.

1044362_4820878294534_1777160148_n Ultimately, though, there would be no Sweet Karma without its leading man, and triple-threat Briones (who has thrilled audiences as Miss Saigon’s Engineer and more recently starred in East West Player’s revival of A Little Night Music) proves himself a dramatic actor to be reckoned with. Thoroughly charming (and a bit of a cad), Briones’ Vichear captures our attention and holds it throughout, a sequence in which the doctor-turned-actor revisits a traumatic memory to play an Oscar-worthy scene making for the evening’s most stunning moment.

Scenic designer Leonard Ogden has incorporated various Asian motifs to create the gorgeous, abstract set on which we journey back and forth from Cambodia to Hollywood. R. Christopher Stokes’ striking lighting design cues us in to which “reality” we are in at the moment, in addition to adding emotional punch to Vichear’s quest. Shirley Nii has created a bevy of beautifully designed and rendered costumes—native Cambodian garb, Tinseltown finery, Khmer Rouge uniforms, and many more. Choreographer Waewdao Sirisook insures authentically graceful dance moves. Most dazzling of all is Dennis Yen’s sound design, a cornucopia of dramatic effects and mood-setting music.

A true-life Cinderfella story without the fairy tale ending, Henry Ong’s Sweet Karma sheds light on a man’s tumultuous life and a country’s horrific past. It is intimate theater at its most powerful and moving.

GTC Burbank, 1111-b West Olive Avenue, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
July 5, 2013
Photos: Kevin Cochran

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