- David E. Ellis and Jack Hourigan make their way through the Beck Center bush.
That's where Shirley Lauro's A Piece of My Heart comes in handy. It is based on a book of the same name by Keith Walker, which chronicled the experiences of 26 women who served in Vietnam, and was adapted for theater in 1989 to relive some of the nightmares of women who were involved as nurses and entertainers in America's most unpopular war. The play dwells on how these women were used and discarded like so many pieces of Kleenex.
It took World War II to make nurses glamorous. Movies like Cry Havoc and So Proudly We Hail show studio goddesses with discreet smudges and exquisitely crafted cheekbones forgoing glamorous nights at the Stork Club to patch up soldier boys the likes of John Wayne and Tyrone Power. Occasionally, war's depredations would cause one of these comely lasses to lose control, snatch a grenade, place it in her torpedo bra, and make the ultimate sacrifice, taking a platoon of "Japs" with her (Veronica Lake's most stirring moment). Ultimately, by the ending credits, the remaining ministering angels are snapped out of their shell shock and headed Stateside to the arms of their dimpled fiancés, assured a future of glory and contentment.
Among the many repercussions of the Vietnam conflict was the way it obliterated the sheen of glamorous self-sacrifice inherent in war plays and movies. Consequently, A Piece of My Heart (title taken from the Janis Joplin song) eschews all traces of war-bond jingoism. It chronicles the tortuous path to and from Vietnam shared by six women -- three nurses, a Red Cross worker, a WAC, and a country-western singer.
The work is like a series of short stories, with the characters meeting up at the end. The most vivid moments are recollections of war atrocities: a nurse takes off her first patient's boot to find the foot is still in it; a deranged soldier offers one of the women what seems to be an apricot but turns out to be a mummified "gook's" ear. In the second act, a mother, who has been exposed to Agent Orange, finds the curse of Vietnam has been passed down to her daughter, who is going blind. As she frantically goes from one medical bureaucrat to another, the play escalates to the horror of Edvard Munch's "The Scream."
Director Sarah May excels at clean delineation of character in intense, intimate plays. Here, she has selected an exceptionally adept handful of actresses who coalesce to create a harsh universe. Like the Fates of ancient mythology, they seem to spin and cut the tenuous thread of life before our eyes. They introduce themselves with cunning character sketches, giving rationalizations for leaving comfortable lives to minister to the maimed in a jungle inferno. These include a compulsion to entertain, pay for nursing school, and live up to a mother's heroic past; one poor, misinformed student nurse banks on ending up in Hawaii.
In the first act, we see them joining the service and experiencing the rigors of boot camp. We witness how the inadequacy of their training leaves them futilely applying Band-Aids in the midst of bloodbaths.
Beck Center's Studio Theater is a Shangri-la for small, concentrated dramas. There is a vantage view from every seat, with the added bonus of every performer being able to use her natural voice without the distortion of amplification or having to overproject. Every actress here has something to contribute: Elizabeth R. Wood, a sturdy matriarchal implacability; Kari Kandel, a corn-fed sincerity grown bitter with disillusionment; Mindy M. Childress, the fresh-scrubbed appeal of the idealized girl next door; Jack Hourigan, the poignant delicacy of easily shattered crystal; Christine Castro, a fresh gamin ossified by horrendous experience; Cathy Nicholson, a bedrock of integrity, scarred but never impugned by the hellish blasts of war and prejudice.
Teamed with the actresses in a part referred to as "The American Men" is David E. Ellis, who has the aura of a snub-nosed fraternity pledge. With the unyielding enthusiasm of Dick Clark on American Bandstand, he plays all the male roles, which range from psychotic soldier to saintly cab driver.
The performers, in a Brechtian manner, never leave the stage. As the emotional and physical carnage mounts, the experience becomes a carnival of the damned. The nightmare follows them back home in the second act. Instead of the adulation that was offered to their parents' generation when returning home from kicking the Führer into oblivion, these emotionally bruised veterans discover they have to hide their uniforms to keep from being pelted by antiwar protesters. They find that the two years they spent hovering in the jaws of death have left them unfit to connect to their former existences. Invariably, they suffer from depression, turn to drugs and alcohol, and find they can relate only to other traumatized war veterans.
Afraid to leave the audience in total despair, the playwright has her protagonists find a modicum of peace in a cathartic reunion at the Vietnam Wall among the 58,000 names of their fallen confreres.
This earnest work is too grounded in docudrama for poetry. It says nothing new about the damages of war, but it speaks from a seldom-heard perspective. Imbued with forthrightness, it fast-forwards us through six blighted lives.