Forty years ago, as the communists were laying siege to Saigon, some 4,465 South Vietnamese refugees scrambled aboard helicopters and escaped to what they frantically assumed would be a better life in the United States.
What they found was culture shock as they attempted to assimilate — and in some cases strongly resisted assimilation. Fort Chaffee, Ark., and other refugee camps represented safety, but they weren’t home. Home wasn’t there anymore.
Qui Nguyen, the son of two of those escapees, has created a theatrical exercise that depicts those early days in the mid-1970s, telling the postwar story from the Vietnamese perspective with liberal doses of drama, humor and pointed exaggeration — such as the parents’ first meeting when she flies lustily into his arms.
The production is called “Vietgone,” and it’s receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory under the dynamic direction of May Adrales.
While the episodic “Vietgone” runs the gamut emotionally, from heart-wrenching drama to rib-tickling funny business, its overall emphasis is on comedy — as the playwright himself (impersonated by actor Paco Tolson) explains before the show begins. The distance of four decades can furnish quite a perspective on life-changing events.
The play’s central characters are Tong (Maureen Sebastian), who escaped Vietnam with her mother but left her boyfriend behind, and Quang (Raymond Lee), a helicopter pilot forced to flee without his wife and two children.
Their story radiates with the heat of passion mixed with personal misgivings. He’s semi-committed to the new relationship, while she firmly stresses her independence. They’re joined by three other performers who play multiple characters on the fringe of the central scenario, some of whom could be excised without significant damage.
The shining star of this adventure is Sebastian as the sexually vibrant but emotionally distant Tong. In both her on-again, off-again rapport with Quang and her pitched battles with her mother (Samantha Quan), who’s desperate to return home, Sebastian injects this show with a compelling immediacy.
Lee also projects a conflict, but mostly within himself, as he truly yearns for a return to Vietnam and being reunited with his family. His love for Tong only materializes when he realizes he has a rival for her affections.
While Quan plays a half-dozen roles, she’s spotlighted as the gruff, opinionated mother who’s a bit of a cougar when it comes to her daughter’s fellow. Tolson and Jon Hoche complete the cast, assuming a total of nine characters including pot-smoking hippies and vicious biker thugs.
Equally as crucial as the performances are the special effects against the backdrop of Timothy R. Mackabee’s scenic design. Rapid-fire lighting effects (by Jaymi Lee Smith) and thundering sound (from Shane Rettig) elevate the production’s total effect.
“Vietgone,” which will open in New York after it closes at SCR, could be strengthened by the elimination, or perhaps down-pedaling, of sequences that don’t really enhance the main plot line, such as encounters with American bikers and hippies. These scenes are interesting but far from essential.
South Coast Repertory, which has given birth to scores of new plays (among them the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Wit”), may have established another such landmark with “Vietgone.”
IF YOU GO
WHERE: South Coast Repertory’s Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
WHEN: Closing performances at 7:45 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday
COST: $22 to $77
INFORMATION: (714) 708-5555