Just in time for Memorial Day, Beowulf Alley Theatre has delivered Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart, a peek at the women who found themselves caught up in the controversial conundrum that was the Vietnam War.
These stories are certainly worthy of respectful examination and recognition. The play, in fact, is based on true stories published in a book, A Piece of My Heart, by Keith Walker—and although the script's heart is in the right place, it fails as good theater. The women get a scattershot, overreaching and disjointed treatment which, in spite of the troupe's effort, doesn't work dramatically.
If one had to identify the turning point in America's journey from innocence to experience, it would probably be Vietnam. Democracy's high ideals—its righteousness proudly confirmed in World War II—and a cultural can-do enthusiasm were all transmogrified into startling brutality which could be viewed every evening on television; a mistrust of government and its leaders; and a cynicism which replaced a belief in our innate goodness and nobility of purpose. It was a fall from grace.
The characters in A Piece of My Heart were both players in and witnesses to this fall. Lauro has insisted on touching on what seems like every last bit of the experience that made up the lives of these women as it relates to their service. But that's what we get—bits and pieces. Instead of developing a story which could reveal the themes she correctly identifies as carrying the truth of the American woman's participation in Vietnam, she laces together a series of monologues and brief vignettes. Many are narrated by the women involved in the sketches rather than having the women become immersed in the scene. Instead of permitting the specifics of their stories to accumulate with powerful effect, Lauro bounces us from snippet to snippet, never allowing us a deep enough entry into these women's lives to get our hearts entangled with theirs.
Six women (and one man, Steve McKee) have the daunting challenge of bringing these fits and starts of multiple stories to life. Although the playwright has done them no favors, these courageous actresses—who are pretty well-matched, skill-wise—take on this challenge with sincerity and enthusiasm.
The first act, a long one, focuses on the women's experiences in Vietnam: the horrific nature of the casualties, which they are ill-prepared, especially emotionally, to deal with; their fear as they are exposed to danger; their questioning of their sexuality; and the lack of respect they are subjected to by their superiors. The second act gives us a look at their lives upon their return to the United States: the horrors they can't forget; their feelings of isolation; struggles with addictions and intimacy.
In the opening moments of the play, these women introduce themselves, speaking directly to us. Each shares her personal background and a scenario about how she found her way to Vietnam. Lauro has gathered these characters with an overly obvious purpose, which is to represent in everywoman fashion the spectrum of those who served.
Martha (Jennifer Roberts) was raised in a military family whose frequent moves left her without a sense of community or purpose, except as part of the military. Sissy (Janet I. Bruce) wants a way out of Erie, Penn., and sees the military as her best shot. Whitney (Maria Rallings) is a Vassar graduate who is drawn to the Red Cross; Steele (T Loving) is a strong African-American woman who—in spite of great frustration with the recalcitrance of her superiors, which has led to massive casualties—opts for a career in the military. Maryjo (Samantha Cormier) is a guitar-playing member of a Texas trio enlisted to provide entertainment to the troops. And LeeAnn (Catherine Killough) is an anti-war teenager who thinks the military will simply provide employment and is duped into thinking she would have a choice about where she would be sent.
Director Whitney Morton keeps things moving with smooth transitions, which is quite an accomplishment. But there are so many arenas of action that her greatest contribution is as a skillful traffic director. She also imposes some rather clunky sound effects; the idea behind them is smart enough—to punctuate a moment of importance—but the execution sometimes seems timid and uncertain. Still, she fosters her actors through a difficult piece with an obvious sense of commitment and care of the subject.
These actresses embody their characters well enough, but the choices of the playwright prevent us from witnessing their full development. Consequently, we never really achieve a whole-hearted sympathy for them. On an intellectual level, we get their issues; we know they represent genuine and disturbing consequences of a very troubled time; and we appreciate that we need educating about their experiences. But we are just not given enough to satisfy our hunger for the emotional bang of effective drama.
The stories of the women who have been largely overlooked in the ongoing reverberations of Vietnam deserve to be heard—but they deserve a much better theatrical representation than this. Lauro, by attempting too much, ultimately gives us too little.