With a wife and two kids, his own appliance store and a house with a pool, Walter Wells, the protagonist of Julie Marie Myatt's play, The Happy Ones, has pretty much achieved the American Dream. Myatt wanted to explore that dream -- and people on both sides of it -- in her play.
Images from Bill Owens' classic 1972 book, Suburbia, photographed around
Livermore, inspired The Happy Ones. With a father in the Marine Corps, Myatt grew up all over the country, but the images of planned neighborhoods in Owens' book resonated with her from what she remembered from her childhood.
"The houses all look the same on the outside and on the inside they're different," she said. "You present your own life through decoration."
The '70s decor and fashion shows up in The Happy Ones -- wall to wall carpeting, plaid pants, a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and a bowl of plastic apples. Since the South Coast Repertory commissioned the play, Myatt wanted The Happy Ones to take place in Orange County where the theater is located. She set it in 1975 -- the year Saigon fell, and about 125,00 Vietnamese refugees came to America. Many of them settled in the Orange County cities of Westminster and Garden Grove.
Myatt said she's always been interested in Vietnam -- her father did two tours of
duty there, right before she was born in 1967 and right after. "Vietnam" was one of
her first words.
"I remember my dad would listen to Vietnamese music when he came back," she said. "He was the only American in a group of Vietnamese Marines. It was this kind of mysterious place."
In The Happy Ones, Walter loses his whole family through a horrible accident. He develops a relationship with the man responsible for the accident, Bao Ngo, a Vietnamese refugee, a doctor who now works in a bakery, and is desperate to do something for Walter. Along with exploring the relationship between these two men who would ordinarily never cross paths, Myatt wanted to examine how people, particularly optimistic Americans, deal with shattering grief. At first Walter wants nothing to do with Bao, but after a while, Bao is the one whose company he finds the most restful since Bao is the only person not trying to cheer him up.
"They have this camaraderie of suffering," Myatt said. "To be with a person who has gone through a similar experience is comfortable. Silence is comfortable. The quiet simplicity of being with another person who allows you to be in your own skin exists between these two men. It's not an intellectual process whatsoever -- it's emotional."
Walter keeps trying to make the best of things -- something Myatt finds both admirable and heartbreaking.
"He didn't have any way to deal with the grief," she said. "Here's this guy who has such a positive outlook. He's wrestling with all these emotions, and I think we can all relate to that and to what do you do."
Walter is like many people she meets, Myatt says.
"People in real life are excellent actors," she said. "You can meet a person on a plane and they can tell you their life story through a smile, and you just think, 'Oh, my God.' People are very resilient and what they act like and what they're going through on the inside is a whole different story."
The Happy Ones, directed by Jonathon Moscone, runs through April 21 at Magic
Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Third Floor, S.F. Tickets are $20-$60. 441-
8822 or magictheatre.org.