Assuming it hasn't been written already, there's probably a thesis in the way the theater comes to grips with war. If we are to believe the plays born of Vietnam--David Rabe's "Sticks and Bones" or Amlin Gray's "How I Got That Story," for example--that ghastly conflict left only a divisive legacy of nihilism, guilt, hate and drugs. On the other hand, many of the plays spawned by World War II are curiously positive in tone, emphasizing the bonds of trust and friendship that can be forged even in hell.
Perhaps, with today's computerized machines of death promising instant oblivion, man has become all too insignificant a player on the battlefield. War has lost whatever human dimensions it might once have had. However, in "The Hasty Heart," written by John Patrick in 1945 and revived Tuesday night by Olney Theatre for a three-week run, man counts.
For all the carnage on the horizon, this occasionally plodding but fundamentally decent drama wants fervently to assert the brotherhood of fighting men. War can still bring them together and cause them to open their hearts. Vietnam lent itself to no such facile consolations, but in the euphoric aftermath of World War II, a trade-off was possible: Sure the war stank, but its humble participants were really okay blokes.
As a result, Patrick's play has a decidedly dated feel about it. His well-made dramaturgy is the sort that believes every human sentiment can be expressed, and those sentiments come perilously close on occasion to soap opera. Patrick's characters--six soldiers recuperating from various battlefield injuries and diseases in a British convalescent ward somewhere in Southeast Asia--are likable enough, and to that extent, the evening itself is likable. But the play lacks a hard edge. Its uplift is too easily purchased. Olney's production, directed by James D. Waring, is anecdotally accurate, but it never entirely succeeds in hoisting the play to a loftier plane.
What with Kiwi the New Zealander, Tommy the Brit, Yank the American, Digger the Australian and Blossom, a black from Basutoland whose command of English extends no further than his name, Patrick's convalescent ward is a microcosm, and its occupants constitute an easygoing fraternity. Into their midst is introduced Lachlen, a 21-year-old Scot, prickly as a thistle and chary as a fox. "I place nae value on the human animal," he says with clipped surliness when his new comrades try to break the ice.
Lachlen has just lost one of his kidneys to shrapnel, and the other is likely to give out in six weeks. "Does the patient know this, sir?" asks the efficient ward nurse of gruff Old Cobweb, the commanding officer. "I've decided against telling him," replies Old Cobweb, thereby establishing the plot in five words and virtually guaranteeing a last-act scene in which Lachlen will be told. Meantime, Lachlen's ward mates are determined to make his last weeks on earth happy ones, even if, as one of them points out, "He'd be miserable if he was happy."
There is some emotional pleasure to be taken from the slow melting of Lachlen, under the often bumbling but well-intentioned ploys to break through his hide. (A surprise birthday party does the trick, while the surprise gift, a full-dress kilt, occasions the predictable running gag about what Scots do or don't wear under their skirts.) And one would have to be a dyed-in-the-wool misanthrope to spurn Patrick's thesis that every man has a right to die in the company of friends, trite as it rings.
What rescues Olney's production from a morass of bathos, however, is the acting of the two leads--Charley Lang, as the cantankerous Scot, and Eric Pierpoint, as the stuttering Yank (the role Ronald Reagan played in the 1950 movie version). Lang makes it abundantly clear that Lachlen's stubbornness is rooted in the ache of loneliness. The script calls for him to open and shut, rather like a clam, but Lang handles the difficult transitions with finesse. Pierpoint, who has the all-American looks that used to be the badge of soda jerks, keeps a knowing twinkle in his eyes. Ever the good-natured ringleader, he also suggests he is a wise observer and maybe, in his private moments, a back-porch philosopher. Between the two grows an authentic bond--their mutual understanding sometimes indicated by no more than a clap on the shoulder or a glance of complicity.
The other actors are not so quick to find their way around the stereotypes of men languishing far from their homes and girlfriends, and James Mountcastle is positively irritating as the chubby Britisher. (His giggle rivals the grate of chalk on a blackboard as one of the world's truly unpleasant noises.) Patrick doesn't always make matters easy. Some of the play's least felicitous dialogue has to do with the romance that springs up between Lachlen and his nurse. But I fear it takes a far more accomplished actress than Debra Macut to remove the clink from such clinkers as, "We've suddenly crossed many rivers. Let's not waste time looking back."
Spurred by a recent revival in Los Angeles, "The Hasty Heart" is currently enjoying a wave of renewed popularity. But Olney's production, well-intentioned as it is, doesn't quite beat the time rap. Both the war it talks about and the men it celebrates seem light years away. The sentiments are noble. They are also, in post-Vietnam America, sadly remote.
THE HASTY HEART. By John Patrick. Direction, lighting and sets by James D. Waring; costumes, Pamela Tomassetti. With Charley Lang, Eric Pierpoint, Michael Rothhaar, Debra Macut, James Mountcastle, R. Jason Nunan, William L. Christian, Dennis Carrig, John Lescault. At Olney Theatre through July 18.