The West End Players Guild has just revived Shirley Lauro’s 2006 play about the Vietnam war, A Piece of My Heart. Six women wind up there in the early days of the conflict. Four of them are recruited because they are nurses, of whom a severe shortage exists in Vietnam. In these early days, these recruits know little about Vietnam and easily swallow what the recruiting officers tell them about the wonderful equipment they’ll have to work with there and the lovely new hospitals. To go to Vietnam you have to volunteer; otherwise you might wind up with little opportunity for action and advancement at a boring base in Germany or England. Whitney, a socially well-placed Vassar grad, volunteered for Vietnam because they speak French. Young Sissy is a rather naïve but sweet girl from Pennsylvania. Martha, an army brat, discovers a battlefield might be different from civilian housing at a base in the U.S. Steele, no raw recruit but an experienced intelligence officer, as an African-American is rarely recognized as the most capable of the lot. Leeann, half-Chinese, half-Italian, did not get the Hawaiian assignment she wanted and is routinely mistaken for Vietnamese. Maryjo bunks with the nurses but is a country-rock singer from Texas hired to entertain the troops by a talent agent with the same respect for truth as the army recruiters.
The women have a hard time in Vietnam. But it is the ’60s, and they manage some breaks with sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. By the second act, they are back home. There they learn that, as the title and Janis Joplin’s song say, Vietnam, the country and the experience, had grabbed a little piece of my heart, and the return to the old life is not trouble-free. More sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, and now and then a freak-out. And finally a reunion at The Wall.
Although the women interact throughout, the play is a series of vignettes. Each woman has her own experiences and her own story, all grounded in the same common experience. Aristotle may not find the same satisfaction he did in the Unities, but I think playwright Lauro makes it work pretty well. So do Players Guild’s director Dani Mann and her cast. Mara Bollini captures army brat Matha’s frustration at a different take on army life. Chelsie Johnston is as deeply affected as the others by the war, though her MaryJo tries to sustain her country music and entertainer style. Madison Jackson’s Sissy suffers some cracks in that girl-next-door surface, as does Annalise Webb’s Whitney in the Vassar facade. Vicky Chen’s Leeann and Patience Davis’s Steele both suffer from racism. People can’t get Leeann’s race right. People can’t get Steele’s competence and intelligence right because of her race. As in the original production, all the male characters, in the war and after the war, were played by one actor. Shane Signorino gave me the pleasure I always find in the sheer virtuosity of one actor convincingly playing multiple characters, each distinct.
In A Piece of My Heart, the Players Guild stage had to represent many different places on two continents while it kept the show moving. It did that, thanks to the concepts and execution of director Mann, stage manager Betsy Gasoske, set designer Zac Cary, costumer Colene Fornachon, lighting designer Nathan Schroeder, sound designer Kareem Deanes, props designer Katie Orr, and Marjorie Williamson’s always brilliantly imaginative program cover design.
Yes, Vietnam is now your grandfather’s war. But we obviously still have a lot we should have learned from that little war, and from all the little wars that have followed it.
Photo by John Lamb