Heartwarming “Heroes” shines at the Lonny Chapman

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jackiehouchin110BY JACKIE HOUCHIN

Under the new artistic direction of Ernest A. Figueroa, The Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre is currently presenting a trio of outstanding plays in rotating repertory (“REP-a-trois”) which makes it possible to see all three shows in a single weekend.

First up is Gerard Sibleyras’s award winning, original play, “Heroes,” translated from French by Tom Stoppard and featuring three incredibly gifted veteran actors.

Packed with humor and poignancy (yes, it’s possible to laugh with a “lump in your throat”), it’s the story of three old soldiers, living in a French military hospital years after the war that wounded them has ended. They are companions, comrades in mischief, and as we discover, each other’s keepers.

The most sociable and responsible of the threesome is the gently debonair Henri (played with finesse by Klair Bybee). On one of his “daily constitutions” he discovers that the nearby village conceals “a real treasure,” a school for young girls. Their delightful chattering reminds him of starlings, he says, which brings to our minds Maurice Chevalier’s classic tune “Thank heaven for little girls.”

(L-R) Klair Bybee, Lloyd Pedersen and Larry Eisenberg in "Heroes."  Photo: Doug Engalla

(L-R) Klair Bybee, Lloyd Pedersen and Larry Eisenberg in "Heroes." Photo: Doug Engalla

Henri’s flowery description of their teacher – tall and lithesome as a lily – exposes him as a closet romantic.  It also shifts the conversation inevitably to the topic of “women.”  (Old soldiers of sixty aren’t much different from young boys of sixteen when it comes to that subject!)

Shrapnel in Philippe’s head is responsible for several hilarious but frightening scenes in which the endearing old soldier looses touch with the world. And on occasion his humorous paranoia turns into panic, like when he “sees” the large stone statue of a dog…moving. Lloyd Pedersen plays this fragile, apprehensive soldier with incredible honesty and skill.

While “Heroes” is nothing like “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the three aging veterans do have varying amounts of “respect” for their caretaker, Sister Madeleine. We never see her, but Philippe is certain she “knocks off” inmates when two of them share the same birthday, simply because she doesn’t like having two parties on the same day.  It’s a running joke that becomes terrifying for Philippe when he learns the newest arrival’s birthday is the same as his. This anxiety fuels Gustave’s plot to fly to coop.

Of course the tough but lovable Gustave (played with sly nonchalance by Larry Eisenberg) may have a problem leading an escape party.  His agoraphobia locks him into a straightjacket routine between his room, the terrace (where the entire play is set), and the dining room. Even the funeral of a fellow inmate (at which Philippe takes an unfortunate turn) fails to entice Gustave to leave.

It takes Philippe’s willingness to follow him to Indo-China if need be and Henri’s ever-supportive patience (not to speak of those young girls and their teacher) to tease Gustave toward the world beyond the gates.

So compelling and endearing are these characters that you’ll begin to fear the inevitable loss of one of them before the play concludes. Who will it be?  Sometimes not knowing is unbearable. But when the three comrades take flight in the play’s final moments, you’ll feel like standing and singing the French National Anthem.

“Heroes” is a truly unforgettable play, one that you will want to experience more than once.  So when you make reservations, be sure to book two (or three) performances. You won’t be sorry.

“Heroes,” as one of the three rotating plays (with “Painted Churches” and “Boston Marriage”), is performed once (or twice) each weekend (various times) through November 17.  Call for specific dates, times, and reservations: (818) 700-4878 or visit www.thegrouprep.com .General admission: $22, Seniors/Students: $17, Groups: $15. The Lonny Chapman Theatre is located at 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood, 91601 (with lot and street parking).

Jackie Houchin is a freelance theater reviewer, covering plays, musicals and readings for the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. She also reviews books for several mystery magazines and writes articles for a local biweekly newspaper.  www.jackiehouchin.com

About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.