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REVIEW: "A Piece of My Heart" — JD Theatricals @ The Attic

“…Soon, one man became every man, and every man was that one man.”

Continuing through June 30th at JD Theatricals at The Attic Community Theatre, Santa Ana, a show is being presented that illuminates substantially the heinous period of time in our country’s history we called The Vietnam Conflict. But, don’t be fooled. It was way more than a conflict — it was full-out war. I know. I was unfortunately a participant.

There have been quite a few movies and plays over the years exemplifying the carnage and craziness of that war, “Full Metal Jacket,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” “The Deer Hunter,” describing the hellish conditions and atrocities rampant during that era, including the tortuous P.O.W. conditions and the 58,220 casualties, in what many thought was a long, pointless battle, not to mention the political exploitation of the war by power-hungry leaders lining their pockets.

But no other production is more emotionally powerful and hard-hitting, as Shirley Lauro's award-winning play, “A Piece of My Heart.” After its premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, it elicited such a strong overtone of praise and revelation about the overlooked heroic women of that war, that the Vietnam Veterans Association recently named “A Piece of My Heart” the most enduring play on Vietnam in the nation.

That play, produced by Rick Kopps and directed by Kathy Paladino at The Attic, tells the compelling tale of six women in graphic detail who took the long journey into those dreadful years of the Vietnam War and whose lives are seamlessly intertwined: three neophyte nurses, an intelligence officer, a Red Cross volunteer and a USO entertainer sent to entertain the troops.

The first act introduces these enthusiastic, life-loving young ladies, effectively chronicling each woman’s initial bright-eyed anticipated arrival to their individual descent into hell, and ultimately a hollow, disappointing return.

Three recent nursing school graduates — effusive Asian-American Leean (Katie May Porter), half-Chinese, half-Italian, who just wanted to go to Hawaii, but instead gets routinely mistaken for Vietnamese, idealistic military brat Martha (Mary Price Moore), who discovers Vietnam is way more than she bargained for, and bubbly WASP Sissy (Sarah McGuire) from Pennsylvania, a rather naïve, but sweet girl next door.

This ferocious loss of innocence is also experienced by “Miss Maryjo Kincaid from Beaumont, Texas” (Victoria Serra), a provincial country-rock singer/guitarist who gets scammed by her agent to go over to entertain the troops. Then there’s sophisticated, Vassar-educated Red Cross worker Whitney (Mia Anderson), and ambitious African-American career intelligence officer Steele (Angela Watson), who, despite being the most capable of the lot, seems to always get treated as the Cassandra. Steele is a tough-talking lifer but secretly big-hearted. All three believe that service in Vietnam would enhance their future careers.

They no sooner arrive in Vietnam than they are confronted with a soldier with his face blown off, and whose foot stays in its boot when removed. As the deaths mount up around them, they are sternly ordered to cover up the corpses and “move on.” They soon learn the only way they can keep their sanity is to “stay behind an emotional wall,” and use insane escapism to help dull the senses and reality of their existence. But no amount of alcohol, drugs, sex and rock n’ roll seems to be able to take away the daily horrors of their jobs. Leean ventures out first, finding solace with a short-lived love-child soldier named Hank. Leean's first diary entry: “Hank is ringing my chimes!”

The actresses inhabit their roles effortlessly, each a portrait of unique experience from very different social backgrounds. Ms. Anderson’s Whitney is luminous in a grounded performance, creating a poignant fulcrum for the madness that surrounds her. Ms. Porter’s cheerful LeeAn, sparkles with a kind of child-like innocence that veils a powerful woman underneath. Ms. McGuire portrays Sissy as a warm, adventurous girl dead set on getting out of Eerie, Pennsylvania, giving a heartbreaking performance that runs the gamut from ‘you betcha’ to utter despair.

Ms. Moore, lovely as the fresh faced army brat Martha, follows in her family’s tradition, sure of herself and her expertise as head nurse. What Martha finds in Vietnam, however, launches her into a spiral that would have overwhelmed a weaker person. And Ms. Serra as MaryJo, the ever smiling USO entertainer in her go-go boots and miniskirt, always has a song on her lips for the soldiers. Ms. Watson as the aptly named Steele, a confident, career army officer, is all business and determined to rise in the ranks as far as she can go.

Whether appearing individually in didactic vignettes or banding together for lengthy rounds of group recitation, the women react mechanically to the expected checklist of red-letter experiences, from their first encounter with the brutality of combat to their initiations into drugs and booze, sexual harassment and even official duplicity (during the Tet Offensive).

Act two follows the women through their post-Vietnam experiences trying to assimilate in an America that is totally indifferent to their service and even repulsed by their wartime experiences. Facing a series of new indignities — unemployment, discrimination, postwar trauma — they go their separate ways, but predictably. The alcoholic finds salvation in Alcoholics Anonymous; the idealist joins Vietnam Veterans Against the War; the true believer becomes a born-again Christian. Ironically, they come to learn that each attained a level of personal heroism in the war that can never be matched again. This reality causes a catharsis in all their lives, eventually leading them to seek solace and healing in Vietnam veterans support groups.

The play touches on all the myriad aspects of the Vietnam War, including a harrowing description of the long-term effects of Agent Orange, the controversial defoliant chemical used to clear the jungle so Vietcong could not hide, and whose latent effects in the human body is still evident in veterans and in citizens throughout Vietnam to this day.

All the performances were first-rate. A monumental plus to the production is the excellent vocal/guitar work of Mark Tillman, whose 60’s/70’s ballads and folksongs weave themselves beautifully into the fabric of the narratives. Other than Mr. Tillman, who strums a mean guitar, there is one other man in the cast – a versatile David Rodriguez, who adroitly finds the essence of each of the myriad men who affected the lives of all these women, from battlefield soldier to state-side civilian.

Mr. Rodriguez, deserving of a standing ovation, helps keep the focus firmly on the women’s stories, resonating on a deeper level. As these women comforted soldier after soldier in a blur of traumatic activity, and as pieces of each woman’s heart splits off with every death, the soldiers’ faces eventually blends together. One man becomes every man, and every man was that one man.

Director Paladino deftly combines nuance with extreme violence and mortality, wrestling with tough material from a deeply social perspective. This play throws you back in your seat. It is intense — these women worked under harrowing conditions, enduring shelling and gunfire while they treated the wounded or cared for exhausted soldiers. As the characters trace a dizzying path across the stage in the steady build of the action, you feel the war as if you are there in it. It is a cathartic and deeply moving piece of writing.

Jim Huffman has designed a deceptively abstract tiered framework set which evokes multiple scene locations. Original Sound Design is by John McQuay. Light Board is by Nick Locke. Costume Design is by Laurie Martinez and Stage Manager is Marty Miller.

Though relatively little official data exists about female Vietnam War veterans, nearly all of them were volunteers, and 90 percent served as military nurses, though women also were stationed as physicians, air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, clerks and other positions in the U.S. Women’s Army Corps, U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marines and Army Medical Corps. These women had their own distinct, courageous war to fight — some with their consciences, some with the military command, most all with primitive medical facilities available, and many, most pointedly, with their fellow men in arms.

Finally in November, 1993, the Vietnam Women's Memorial was dedicated at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. in front of a crowd of some 25,000 people. The centerpiece of the memorial is a bronze statue by Glenna Goodacre, which depicts three female nurses assisting a wounded soldier.

“A Piece of My Heart,” now playing at JD Theatricals @ The Attic Community Theatre in Santa Ana, continues through June 30th. You will be amazed at the quality of acting, in a show that hits you right between the eyes, but makes a grab for your heart. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:30pm. Get your tickets here:

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report


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