Vietnam War play moving look at women on and off the battle field
By David Seaman | Echo
When we think about the Vietnam War, we think of the soldiers. We think of the battles, the lives lost, the hot jungle terrain. The consensus today is that Vietnam was an unwinnable war, one that brought turmoil to the States and unnecessary bloodshed overseas.
But what about the people themselves? Amidst the numbers and statistics, there were real individuals— people who experienced pain and felt the pain of others. About 15,000 American women served in Vietnam. Six of them are the focus of “A Piece of My Heart,” the moving play by Shirley Lauro and the latest production of Taylor University Theatre.
The play tells the true stories of six women commissioned to Vietnam during the conflict. Coming in naive to the horrors of war, they struggle to make sense of their experiences and return to a nation that shuns and misrepresents those who served in southeast Asia. The 1991 production, based off a book of the same name, condenses the stories of 28 women serving in Vietnam into the lives of six.
“It can be anyone’s story, really,” said senior Claire Hadley, assistant director to the Tracy Manning-directed production. “This story can validate the thousands who served in the war.”
Episodic stories make up the plot of “A Piece of My Heart” rather than the typical overarching narrative. The six women act out their main roles for most of the play, but they branch out to perform others when required. There are four regular USO nurses, a Red Cross nurse, a country singer and an army intelligence officer.
Sophomore Rachel Erskine plays the rebellious nurse Leeann, who desperately wants to be stationed in Hawaii but ends up “in the ‘Nam,” as the women call it. Senior Deborah Barnett is the strong and determined nurse Martha, junior Morgan Turner the warm-hearted nurse Sissy and junior Jessica Schulte the sophisticated Red Cross nurse Whitney.
Rounding out the women are sophomore Bianca Woodstock as Steele, the group’s leader, and junior Leah Murphy as the bubbly but secretly hurting country singer Maryjo. Junior Carter Parry, sophomore Andrew Davis and freshman Joe Shea play the parts of male characters.
The two-and-a-half hour production takes the sextet from Texas to San Francisco to the jungles of Vietnam itself. There the six experience war and parties, love and heartbreak, life and death. “I took a vow to help mankind,” says one of the characters. They all must take this vow to heart as they see a bloody war firsthand.
They must build a psychological wall as well: don’t become too attached to a soldier, because the odds are you probably won’t see him again.
In the second act, the action switches over to the home front. After experiencing the tough lives of soldiers, the six must see the war through a filtered and distorted glass. TV news blares inaccurate numbers of soldiers lost overseas. “
It’s not a baseball score,” cries Steele. “These are real people.”
But it seems the U.S. enemy casualties were more important than dead U.S. soldiers.It’s a different world at home, and as the women struggle with the effects of war, they come to terms with what they saw and did in Vietnam.
The production is stellar as usual. A wooden American flag platform fills the unique set, with green sandbags and army nets filling in the corners and background. Fog gives the stage an eerie feel, especially for night scenes, and multicolored lights flash to give battle scenes energy.
The performances themselves are all exceptional, with some characters written with more dimensions than others. Sissy struggles with reminders of death, Whitney’s personality changes drastically from lost love and Leeann goes back and forth with her anti-war convictions and ability to view soldiers as human beings. Maryjo wrestles with masking an assault she experienced during the war as Martha deals with the ramifications of what she signed up for.
Steele oversees all of the ladies’ changes and confronts the sad refusal of Americans back home to see soldiers as anything more than baby-killers. The male characters are never really fleshed out, but that’s because each one is playing close to 10 characters by the end of the play. Each one does an admirable job with the short time he has.
The changing sounds of a generation are in full force with 1960s music provided by Maryjo and the sound team. From the early hard rock of Led Zeppelin to psychedelic hippie grooves, the play pulses with the sounds of the times. Maryjo provides a human outlet for the music, but some of the musical cues are misplaced. Near the end of a few emotional scenes there’s a tendency for a sad line to be sung, and more often than not this comes off more annoying than poignant. Still, most of the music works, and it helps embellish the story.
The dialogue really drives “A Piece of My Heart,” emphasizing each individual. Two separate conversations involving Maryjo and Whitney, both shown on stage at same time, reveals their differing reactions to the war. Maryjo tearfully reveals a horrifying situation, while Whitney turns to a solution that will cause more trouble than comfort down the road. The lines are snappy, heartfelt and brutally realistic.
Themes include everything from the horror of war to Agent Orange exposure to the reactions of the local Vietnamese caught in the battles. One main theme that stood out, however, was sexism. The men treat most of the women like objects, but the six realize this is a form of comfort to the soldiers. How can a woman feel both strong and feminine during a terrible situation? Is there a difference? It’s something not typically examined in any sort of war media.
Along with the great production, the show is unique in its ties to Taylor. Several professors and board members are Vietnam vets, and many faculty members and students had relatives and friends who served.
“Our cast has taken advantage of that and have been blessed to meet with them for interviews,” said Schulte. This no doubt helped with the convincing portrayals the cast present in the play. A memorial wall shown at the end of the show displays the names of veterans close to Taylor people who served and died, giving “A Piece of My Heart” an even more moving and personal connection to its audience.
“Women never made a war like that,” one character says. All the violence, misinformation, heartbreak—the play makes a convincing case for womanly understanding and compassion in the face of terror. Maybe what Vietnam needed in the end, instead of the vitriolic shouting from both sides, was a woman’s touch.
“A Piece of My Heart” will run this Friday and Saturday Feb. 20-21 and next weekend Feb. 27-28 at 8 p.m. Sunday performances on Feb. 22 and March 1 will be at 2 p.m. Adults are $12, faculty and staff $10, senior and children $8 and students $7. Veterans will receive half-price tickets at $6. Tickets can be purchased by calling 765-998-5289 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.