Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, the first entry in the 2001-02 regular season at the Loeb Experimental Theater, is a show about Vietnam that features neither male-driven bravado, nor war-torn freedom fighters in dirty fatigues; Platoon, it isn’t. All conventional expectations of a play dealing with war are thrown out in the opening scene, when the lights come up on six women. These six characters, whose Vietnam experiences and post-war struggles give the play its focus, represent perspectives of the war different from each other, and different from what an audience is used to seeing. Their losses and life-changing conflicts, though, ultimately form a cohesive and often stunning view of Vietnam in this small-scale, yet intensely powerful production.
The play opens with the six women situated on the stage in frozen, pensive positions. Some are elevated, others stand on the same level as the audience amidst the simple, undistracting set. Each woman then presents her own reason for going to Vietnam. Steele and Martha, respectively played by Itumelang A. Makgetla ’05 and Carolina M. Borras ’05, are familiar with army life and ready to risk their lives for glory. Makgetla’s Steele is an aggressively rendered officer, eager to climb the ladder; Martha, whose disillusionment and multi-layered internal conflict are portrayed with astonishing accuracy by Borras, grew up with the military .and takes a highly patriotic stance on her Vietnam involvement.
LeAnn, portrayed with a delicately-layered vulnerability by Angela M. Hur ’03, is a flag-waving protester who has responded to the question, “What can you do for your country?” She volunteers as a nurse, hoping to care for wounded soldiers in Hawaii, where she says “everyone looks like me.”
Whitney is the self-proclaimed “Vassar girl,” played sharply and with an effectively haughty self-awareness by Alexandra M. Ohanian ’05. Sissy (Elizabeth Newhall ’02) is her antithesis, a homely and naive girl who contrasts with Whitney’s confidence and projected image of success.
MaryJo, played in a highly mannered fashion by Jordan R. Berkow ’03, is a member of an all-girl rock band sent to Vietnam to entertain the troops. She is bursting with excitement and ludicrous visions of a candy-coated Vietnam brimming with attractive soldiers to fill her need for admiration.
A Piece of My Heart progresses with a simple, two-act structure. Once the women reach Vietnam, they are subjected to a complex, yet predictable string of failed relationships with soldiers and shocking images of death and mutilation. In the typical fashion of a Vietnam War story, the characters, though warned of the horrors of Vietnam, are nevertheless overwhelmed by what they witness first-hand.
Vietnam creates blacker, deeper realities for the individuals. Sissy, in quite possibly the play’s most powerful moment, treats a patient to whom she had previously given a picture of herself for support. Now dying, with his arms and legs grotesquely blown off, he returns the picture to her. The intense personal connection in a situation of such horrid human destruction is something Sissy is barely able to handle. Newhall plays the scene with a near-perfect, wonderfully understated sense of unresolved guilt as she watches the soldier convulse in terrible pain.
The soldier, along with all the male characters in the play, is portrayed by Michael M. Donahue ’05, who moves effortlessly among characters from different backgrounds and with different places in Vietnam and the women’s lives.
All of those women encounter obstacles that diminish their feelings of self-worth. Martha feels unqualified as a nurse and unable to justify the precarious nature of her work; MaryJo is objectified by the soldiers; Steele feels discriminated against both as a black and as a woman; Whitney fails in her relationships with soldiers; LeAnn engages in a romantic affair, the angry demise of which precipitates her lover’s death; and Sissy is quite simply overwhelmed by her own lack of resolve. All of their initial perceptions are challenged and ultimately overturned, and as they leave Vietnam in a helicopter at the end of Act One, the audience knows that none of their demons have been left behind.
Act Two depicts the aftermath of Vietnam on the women back home amidst an environment that appears equally hostile to their identities. This is where the play is at its weakest. Depictions of the after-effects of their experiences are sometimes abrupt and obvious, thus becoming less effective than they should be. A key example is when the tremendously confused Sissy finds God in a scene where the writing betrays the integrity of the character and oversimplifies her emotional journey.
However, writing flaws do not make a tremendous impact, as the performances remain far above-par. And despite the thematic predictability of the second act, it is altogether powerful, even when compared to the first act’s gloriously frenzied energy.
The audience leaves the theater with a wholly appropriate feeling of confusion and pessimism. When the characters deliver individual prologues at the end of the play, they are generally open-ended, not wrapping up all the loose ends too neatly, and allowing room for the dark scars burned on their minds by Vietnam.
A Piece of My Heart does exactly what it should; it takes away a piece of our excess human optimism and makes us realize that perhaps we don’t wholly understand America’s most disastrous war—and it does this without pretending that it does.
A piece of my heart