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).