Julie Marie Myatt’s new work explores big themes—the Vietnam War, Black April, the American Dream, a changing OC in the ’70s—through intimate moments in her characters’ lives
Okay, so Julie Marie Myatt’s father served two tours of duty in Vietnam and one of the first words she ever spoke was Vietnam—after all, that’s where daddy was on her third birthday.
But, even though Vietnam exerted a huge influence on her formative years, that’s not what sparked Myatt’s new play, The Happy Ones, which centers on a collision of cultures in 1975 Orange County between a Vietnamese refugee who has nothing and a suburban family man who seems to have it all.
The actual catalyst for the work was a book Myatt was thumbing through three years ago: Suburbia, Bill Owens’ classic 1972 visual documentation of Southern California, well, suburbia.“I get a lot of my writing ideas from images, and the more I thought about [this books’], the more I started thinking about what was going on in Southern California, especially Orange County, at the time,” Myatt said.
Which led Myatt to 1975, a year when Orange County’s suburban communities were very comfortable and very white but experiencing the first wave of non-gringo immigration that would ultimately alter the county’s complexion, street signs and cuisine forever.
Black April—the fall of Saigon—occurred in 1975, and an estimated 125,000 Vietnamese refugees poured into the U.S. the rest of that year. Many of them were processed at Camp Pendleton and wound up in Garden Grove and Westminster.
So, Myatt had her setting, her era and her historical context. But the personal arc that fuels her play—a horrific event that inextricably bonds a comfortable, white, suburban appliance-store salesman named Walter and a Vietnamese refugee named Bao—comes more from a theme that Myatt seems to constantly revisit in her plays, including My Wandering Boy, which made its debut three seasons ago at South Coast Repertory.
“I’m always interested in comparing the picture-perfect American dream with those who operate outside it, or rub up against it, or want inside it but just aren’t really set up for it,” she said. “It’s an idea that’s always in my plays: Is the American dream still possible? Where does it fail us? what happens when you lose it?”
But though there is a big theme in Myatt’s play, and it’s set against a backdrop of international calamity that produced great personal tragedy, The Happy Ones is really a quite intimate tale about two men forced into an awkward relationship.
It’s a poignant story peppered by a good amount of gallows humor, most of it supplied by two supporting characters who are also wrestling with their relationship to the American dream: a less-than-saintly Methodist preacher and a sparkplug of a woman who, though possessing similar personality traits, is far more interesting than your contemporary desperate OC housewife or denizen of the Foxfire Restaurant’s notorious cougar den.
“Julie is a storyteller who writes very subtle stories that are very, very human,” said Martin Benson, the play’s director and co-founder of SCR. “I respond to plays that hit me in the gut, and the relationship between the two men at the center of this play is an extraordinary one. They are people coming from totally different positions, and they have to find a way to deal with each other. When I read her play, I found it interesting, touching and funny, and I knew I wanted to direct it.”
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Another interesting relationship at work in The Happy Ones is the one between the playwright and the assistant director: Oanh Nguyen, the artistic director of the Anaheim Hills-based Chance Theater (located about a half-mile from the aforementioned Foxfire), a company that, over the past decade, has evolved from an unknown storefront to a major player in Southern California theater.
As with Myatt, Nguyen’s formative years were fundamentally shaped by Vietnam: His family fled here when he was 4. But, just as Myatt’s father doesn’t talk at length about his experience in Vietnam, Myatt has learned that Nguyen’s parents are similarly reticent about theirs.
“I don’t know, maybe writing plays like this, or being attracted to the subject material, is an attempt on our part to figure out the silences of our childhoods,” Myatt said. “Maybe they’re even gifts to our parents. I’m not sure. That might be too big a question for me to answer.”
The Happy Ones at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5560; www.scr.org. Opens Oct. 2. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. Through Oct. 18. $55-65; under 25/students, $20.