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Hearts: The Forward Observer

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Hearts: The Forward Observer, Northlight Theatre. Willy Holtzman's drama leaves a deep impression in less than 90 minutes, depicting with amazing specificity the experiences of Donald Waldman, a tough Jewish soldier in World War II. Alternating gripping war vignettes with games of hearts played over the next 40 years or so, the playwright introduces Waldman's wartime buddies and evokes the post-traumatic stress he suffered after the "liberation" of the Buchenwald death camp. A reluctant warrior and complex antihero, Waldman overeats after the war because he feels pity for and anger at the Holocaust survivors, fellow Jews whose starvation threatened his sense of security. Only when an Internet correspondent offers him some perspective on the trauma can Waldman put his demons to rest.

Illustrated by slides that take us from card games in Saint Louis to the Battle of the Bulge and from 1944 to the present, B.J. Jones's staging forges a "family" as persuasive as any real one. Adding authenticity is Mike Nussbaum's portrayal of the haunted, driven Waldman: Nussbaum never saw combat but was in the army from shortly after D-day until March 1946. Deftly fleshing out his buddies are William Dick as an insomniac WWII vet, William J. Norris as a stutterer whose every hard-won word has meaning, and John Sterchi as a troubled store owner; Linda Kimbrough is wonderfully sympathetic as Waldman's sensible wife. Overall these time capsule snapshots could hardly be more real.

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