It's always a heartwarming surprise to see a play by a non-famous local writer -- a student, recent grad, or someone just relatively new to writing for the stage -- and have it turn out to be well-crafted and entertaining. I love new artists, and I love the companies who foster them. And working on something brand-new can be a rewarding experience in many different ways.
Heartlight Productions/Mythic Theatre, a company whose name just keeps getting longer while, bless their hearts, they don't have a published season schedule or an updated Web site, is currently presenting a lovely and moving revival of Mark Kosloff's Happy Birthday, Katie Valentine, which premièred in 2001 at Desert Foothills Theater in Cave Creek. Kosloff is a Vietnam veteran who was in a graduate program at ASU back then.
The show is being staged at Chyro Arts Venue in Scottsdale, where Heartlight has also begun teaching youth acting classes, and I'm hoping their relationship continues to the benefit of both entities (and to make my venue-finding easier after sundown, frankly).
Katie Valentine (Lisa Heaney) is a 39-year-old art therapist who works at a V.A. hospital. She's worked at several V.A. hospitals, partly because her older brother Jimmy was listed as missing in action in Vietnam in 1970 and she keeps hoping to find him, somewhere, perhaps amnesiac or comatose. Closure would be good for Katie, because every year on her birthday (which also happened to be Jimmy's birthday) she can see and hear a vision of 19-year-old Jimmy (Matthew Crosby), sassy, cheerful, and seemingly indestructible. And she's ready to move on.
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Katie's two recreational rehab clients in the art room, 'Nam vets who go by Digger and Sarge (Malcolm Hooper and Don Crosby), couldn't be more different politically. Sometimes they converse, and sometimes they just toss hawk-and-dove slogans at one another like mantras, triggers, or the pronouncements of a Greek chorus. One thing I really like about the script is the way the less realistic elements melt quite smoothly into the here-and-now, bureaucratic mortal-world storyline, the way different stimuli do when you're living in trauma, the way the world behaves when you're not sure who's the crazy one. Is Katie's point of view real? Does Jimmy exist, let alone have a point of view? Are these questions for the audience, the characters, or both? A lesser writer would make an annoying mess of this complexity, but Kosloff keeps it believable, while troubling.
Director Daniela Crispo Talarico has a clear vision of where the play needs to go, and the entire ensemble does a subtle but fully textured job of taking it there. We think we're in one situation, and then Jamie, a developmentally disabled military dependent (Melissa Grounlund) enters the room. She can hear Jimmy, too. WTF? And Sarge has been struggling for months to open up to Katie about the most horrifying experience of his war. We think we understand why he can't talk, but it turns out we don't know the half of it.
Happy Birthday, Katie Valentine continues through Saturday, December 19, at Chyro Arts Venue, 1330 North Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Order tickets, $12, here. If you don't get your act together in advance, there's a good chance you can snag tickets at the door. If you need more info, call Heartlight at 480-217-7362. And try to get your tears dried off by the time you get to that holiday party.