There was a time when A Piece of My Heart was one of only a few collections of women’s experiences in the Vietnam War. Playwright Shirley Lauro’s portrayal of women and their stories goes behind the scenes and shares the thoughts, feelings and emotions from the vantage point of women in service.
An ensemble of six women form the core of a battalion of Red Cross nurses, and one actor plays all the assorted male roles. The play opens with each women standing at the Vietnam Memorial providing a snippet of information– her name, a brief introduction about herself and how she came into service. Whether she saw enlisting as a quick way out of a boring home life, a way to play music, or was even tricked by a recruiter into believing the assignment would be in Hawaii, the women found themselves huddled on an aircraft carrier to “Nam.”
The strong undercurrent flowing throughout the individual the stories is the devotion that the nurses have for the fighting soldiers. The soldiers are front and center in the war effort and in the nurses’ consciousness—their comfort, their needs, their struggles and pain. This comes across beautifully when ground carriers are sent to retrieve the personnel and take them to the base. Special vehicles are sent to transport the commanders, then the soldiers. The nurses are all but abandoned on the run way, when an open, dumpy flat-bed truck finally appears to transport them, a reflection of their low status and consideration.
The play also successfully portrays the overwhelming “fish out of water” feeling that the women felt upon arrival in Vietnam, the atrocious working conditions, and the constant struggle for comparable treatment with men in the military chain of command. Focusing on the women’s stories, their individual journeys and discoveries, and their camaraderie in helping each other in dangerous, confusing and complicated situations, the women emphasized that they were not combat soldiers and not sent intentionally into fighting zones. The nurses experience their share of battles, however, and all the blood and guts that go with it.
The actors working together as a seamless ensemble form the structural foundation that supports everything else in the play. The actors take on various roles for the different scenes and scenarios in addition to their own specific roles. Two portray joined-at-the-hip giggling school girls who volunteered for the adventure, one is cool and classy, another from the rural town of Erie, Pennsylvania, another from Texas, resulting in a kaleidoscope of abilities, styles, geographical regions and societal range of the recruits. At rise they all wear an assortment of all-weather coats showing their individuality. Once those are discarded, the characters function as a unit in uniform, then return to their individual attire in the ending montage. Very effective.
The play itself doesn’t try to cover too much territory, and might be considered a rather mild depiction of the war and the volatile times. While the first act sets up the conditions, the challenges and the resourcefulness of the nurses to function and survive, the second act shows what happened when they finally return home, sometimes to a hero’s welcome, but more often not, like the soldiers, they caught the brunt of the public’s outcry and anti-war protests and rage. These could well be the most touching moments because even though the women risked their lives to nurse the wounded and dying soldiers, they were still targeted with distain and disrespect when they returned stateside.
Showing women in service in Vietnam provides valuable insight about their range of involvement. These were not combat battalions of soldiers trained for battle, and sometimes their nursing mission collided with reality, as in one scene where a nurse is confronted with having to care for a wounded enemy soldier.
The play is filled with such poignant moments, which would have come through more effectively with more crisp, less linear and predictable direction by Jason M. Beagle. The stage ( set design by Hannah J. Crowell) is a multi-tiered platform with memorabilia encased in rectangular boxes—which don’t seem to have much of any function and instead have a cluttered effect that made the memories feel entombed, too.
The guitar musical interludes go on too long for an inexperienced musician and come across uncomfortably amateurish. Another example of the plodding direction is seen when one of the nurses tries to get through the bureaucratic chain of command to relay the horrors of the Tet Offensive—she paces from one spot to another relaying the same message to no avail. A horrendous event of this magnitude needed more than a scene depicting a botched command trail.
A Piece of My Heart pre-dated The Vietnam Women’s Memorial, and for awhile served as the only testament to “strength and courage of the …military and civilian women who served in Vietnam,” and who often returned home with their share of emotional battle scars. Considering the country’s current involvement in battles all over the world, and the increasing role of women in combat, this production is a nod of acknowledgment and affirmation for the caring hearts nearby.
This was a tight ensemble piece. Playing the roles of various nurses: Christine Hirrel, Melissa W. Bailey, Robin Covington, Anne Veal, Momo Nakamura, and Jeri Marshall. All of the male roles were played by Greg Gallagher.
A Piece of My Heart
Written by Shirley Lauro (Suggested by a book by Keith Walker)
Directed by Jason M. Beagle
Produced by American Century Theater
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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A Piece of My Heart
- City Paper . Glen Weldon