Famed Cambodian's life portrayed on stage in Burbank

Cambodian physician Haing S. Ngor survived torture and slave labor during the Pol Pot regime, came to Hollywood, won an Oscar for his role as a journalist in "The Killing Fields" — and lost his life in Los Angeles, shot to death during an apparent robbery.

In his new play, "Sweet Karma," at Grove Theater Center in Burbank, playwright Henry Ong frames Ngor's life and death as a stylized examination of moral complexity, love and forgiveness. And if the script's mix of earnestness and gut-punching intensity makes for an uneven dynamic, the play effectively juxtaposes one individual's personal tragedy and guilt against the enormity of events suffered under Khmer Rouge rule.

Directed with considered care by Kevin Cochran, the play opens with the 1996 murder of Ngor (renamed Vichear Lam here and played with conviction by veteran actor Jon Jon Briones). Implying a political motivation, Lam's Asian gun-wielding assailant (Kennedy Kabasares) demands a locket that the doctor wears concealed around his neck. Lam refuses, is killed and comes to in an afterlife where death is the catalyst for a journey through memory, guided by an enigmatic young woman who identifies herself as Devi (Pauline Yasuda).

In time-shifting vignettes, Lam — with memories dominated by his idealized vision of his long-dead wife Suriya (graceful Constance Parng, alternating in the role with Rainbow Dickerson) — revisits their courtship, the horror of atrocities and his own torture, imprisonment and starvation as the Cambodian genocide unfolds. Lam's brutal beating by a Khmer Rouge soldier (Kabasares) is powerfully staged by Cochran with no physical contact between the actors. It is one of the play's most disturbing scenes, enhanced by Leonard Ogden's tri-level set design with staggered platforms, tall bamboo stalks and rough netting, and lighting designer R. Christopher Stokes' expert eye for the play's shifting ambience.

Lam experiences once more Suriya's death in a slave labor camp, his self-serving role in it, and his unlikely transformation to Hollywood star. Through the lens of the Buddhist concept of karmic causality that informs the play, Lam is shown the interconnectedness of his flawed choices, his womanizing and pivotal moments of cowardice and arrogance.

"Am I to examine my entire life?" he asks. "Only until you make sense of it," replies Devi, holder of a secret of her own. (A surprise plot point, this secret is later revealed with drawn out, expository emotiveness, suggesting that some of Ong's script is still a work in progress. Yasuda, while an appealing presence, picks her way gingerly through the challenge presented by a character called upon to be alternately stern, compassionate, questioning, earthy, wise, playful and remote.)

Briones' lengthy stage credits include international tours of "Miss Saigon," and "Allegiance," a new musical about Japanese American internment that premiered last at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre and is being developed for a Broadway run. A compelling actor, Briones conveys the pathos in a flawed individual's self-justification, guilty survival and genuine suffering. The experienced cast also includes Jully Lee, who like Kabasares, competently plays multiple roles.

Ong is no stranger to fact-based theater. Among his eclectic dramas and docu-dramas are "Madame Mao's Memories," "Fabric," based on the 1995 expose of Thai workers enslaved in an El Monte garment factory; "Rachel Ray," adapted from the 19th century Anthony Trollope novel; and "People Like Me," inspired by the experiences of gay and lesbian teenagers in L.A. "Sweet Karma" was developed through GTC's New Play Initiative, responsible for such well-received works as "Blake…da Musical!" "Straight Up With a Twist" and the recent "Eternal Equinox," which went on to New York for an Off Broadway run. (An earlier independent incarnation of Ong's "Sweet Karma" ran at New York's Queen's Theatre in the Park.)

What: "Sweet Karma"

Where: GTC, George Izay Park, 1111-b W. Olive Ave., Burbank.

When: 8 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends July 20.

Cost: $29.50

More info: (800) 838-3006, http://www.gtc.org

--LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.

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