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Keith Nobbs and Emily Donahoe in The Hasty Heart
(Photo © Josh Bradford)
The Keen Company's mission is to produce what it refers to as "sincere plays." John Patrick's 1945 drama, The Hasty Heart, fits that bill to a tee. The play is set in the convalescent ward of a British Army hospital in Southeast Asia, during the latter part of the Second World War. Unlike more contemporary war plays, there is no cynical edge to the writing; the play does not question why the soldiers are fighting, and instead focuses on the interpersonal connections between the characters. While the script is fairly formulaic and holds few surprises, Keith Nobbs is excellent in the central role, giving the piece substance and power.

Patrick presents an optimistic view of human relations in wartime. It's not that he avoids political conflict -- there are some pointed references to the legacy of British colonialism, for example -- but he seems to believe that there's an underlying goodness in men that transcends national boundaries. This is reflected in the makeup of the patients in the ward, who represent a cross-section of Allied coalition forces. They joke amongst themselves, calling each other not by their actual names but by the slang designation of their country of origin: Yank (Chris Hutchison) is the American, Digger (Brian Sgambati) hails from Australia, Kiwi (Paul Swinnerton) is from New Zealand, and Tommy (Anthony Manna) comes from England. The only exceptions to this nicknaming are Sister Margaret (Emily Donahoe), the ward's nurse; Blossom (Chris Chalk), a Basuto who knows no English except for the one word that the others take to be his name; and Lachlen "Lachie" McLachlen (Nobbs), the latest patient to arrive in the ward, whose presence changes everything.

As the play begins, Lachie has recently undergone surgery and lost one of his kidneys. Unbeknownst to him, the Colonel (Stephen Bradbury) who operated on Lachie has discovered that his other kidney is defective and that he only has about six weeks to live. Lachie has been transferred to the convalescent ward, with Sister Margaret and the other patients made aware of his condition but with Lachie himself in the dark. The colonel wants the others on the ward to make Lachie's final weeks as pleasant as possible by befriending him, but it turns out that Lachie isn't easy to like; he has a chip on his shoulder and seems to delight in pushing away all attempts by the others to make friends with him.

Nobbs plays the role with just the right mixture of arrogance and insecurity. He's successfully mastered Lachie's Scottish accent, and the non-verbal moments when the character wrestles with his own emotions are as fully fleshed out as the actor's spoken dialogue. Donahoe radiates a perkiness that fits Sister Margaret well, and she skillfully plays the character's more emotional scenes. Hutchison has difficulty in making Yank's stutter seem organic but otherwise does a fine job. The rest of the cast is serviceable but sometimes hindered by Jonathan Silverstein's static direction.

The script necessitates that there be six beds for the various patients, presenting a challenge that scenic designer Nathan Heverin has not well met; his set looks much too cramped on Theatre Three's small stage, and is not arranged in a very interesting manner. The sound design by Stefan Jacobs seems unbalanced at times, particularly when Lachie starts playing his bagpipes. While it might be too much to hope for a localized sound in Lachie's vicinity, surely there must be a way to make the pipes sound less fake.

Still, Nobbs' performance makes the clunky aspects of the script and the production tolerable. This young actor makes his character's journey believable, and his emotional outbursts seem grounded rather than melodramatic. Over the last several years, Nobbs has excelled in a wide range of productions on New York stages, and his work in The Hasty Heart is no exception.

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