What we leave behind
A Piece of My Heart
Written by Shirley Lauro
Directed by Melanie Moyer Williams
The Red Fern Theatre Company
78th Street Theatre Lab,
Equity showcase (closed
Review by Deborah S. Greenhut
The forgotten nurses of the Vietnam War are the poignant subject of Shirley Lauro’s highly affecting and effective play, Piece of My Heart, based on Keith Walker’s compilation of their narratives. Faithful to its title and the era, taken from Janis Joplin’s song, the drama built to a feisty, hoarse wail that attacked and resuscitated the heart of the audience.
A capable cast, tightly directed by Melanie Moyer Williams, animated the spirit of the nurses and the American 1970s. Numerous men were played well by the versatile Christopher Clawson—everyone from a buck private to a sleazy entertainment manager. But the nurses’ diverse lives were the main event in this play, and the seven actor ensemble delivered finely tuned performances to the main stories of LeeAnn (Siho Ellsmore), Steele (Elizabeth Flax), Martha (Catherine Gowl), Whitney (Emilie Elizabeth Miller), Sissy (Kendall Rileigh), and MaryJo (Phoenix Vaughn). In rapid-fire vignettes, the action chronicled their experiences from the often starry-eyed enlistment to the disaffected discharge from the military, offering a kaleidoscopic view of loneliness, PTSD, deferred personal dreams, and the women’s personal growth. The nurses and entertainers came from all walks of life to the grinder of war and medicine under fire, and Lauro’s ambitious play tackles it all, including the issues of racism, sexism, and all other –isms that ripped through those conflicted times as a context for the war. More than 1000 productions and numerous awards, including The Barbara Deming Prize and The Kittredge Foundation Award testify to the quality of A Piece of My Heart.
Served by an excellent set (Adrienne Kapalko), lighting (Jessica Greenberg), and costume design (Summer Lee Jack), the period of the piece was conveyed sensitively through a collection of translucent panels and well-choreographed movement of benches and blocks. Costumes suggested the era without distracting from the timeless stories. This play could easily overwhelm the audience with psychedelic special effects, but the production values complement the action, ably stage managed (Laura Luciano), with effective properties (Laura Anderson and Amanda Donelan).
In the effort to unify these disparate stories, Lauro
identified their common ground, so the play sometimes glides over the messiness
and confusion—often providing relief through song, featuring the guitar skills
of Phoenix Vaugn or a soundtrack theme
song. The overall impact of this much-lauded play draws from its raw emotional
power; an abstract recreation of the Maya Lin Vietnam War Memorial Wall helped
to neaten up the ending for the play. Of course, recovery from what they left
behind is a process, and the spectator was left with the nagging feeling,
supported by the post-performance discussion with invited
A word about Red Fern Theatre Company’s mission is in order. The company not only produces socially conscious plays, it partners with philanthropies whose missions assist those affected by the issues addressed in the play. Playgoers will get a little education with their donation, and this grace note makes their productions an excellent twofer.
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