Looking for escapist entertainment? Stay away from A Piece of My Heart, a gut-wrenching drama that follows the lives of six women who served in Vietnam. If you can handle a searingly honest look at the lingering horrors of war and the human capacity to heal, make your reservation now. The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University provides a first-rate production of Shirley Lauro's play.
Interweaving multiple narratives and locations, songs and text, the play is a huge technical challenge -- but one that is met with seeming ease. Thanks to technical direction by Alexander Gaines, Andrew Hull's scene design and Richard Fisher's lighting design, the potentially confusing story lines are rendered crystal clear. Elizabeth Miller's costumes appropriately contrast stark uniforms with colorful civilian clothes, while Amanda Bruggeman's sound design provides everything from battle sounds to Led Zeppelin. The unsung hero of this production is Angelita Thomas, the stage manager, whose smooth calling of complicated cues helps the production build to carefully choreographed cacophony.
The acting ensemble embodies the sense of community and cooperation that the vets describe as typical in Vietnam. The versatile William Davis III plays all the male roles. As career Navy nurse Martha, Sarah L. Anderson effectively conveys the realization that she's not living her Florence Nightingale dream. Johanna Kroger plays USO singer Mary Jo, hip in her white go-go boots and pink paisley dress. Kroger leads the musical interludes, ranging from a cheery "Here Comes Santa Claus" to a haunting "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." Gretchen Porro has some of the most dramatic moments as the initially naive army nurse Sissy, who sees her lover killed by a mine and later fights the ravages of Agent Orange in herself and her child.
Representing the Red Cross "Donut Dollies" is Whitney, played by Mallory Hawks, who convincingly transforms from optimism to alcoholism. Emma Kate Rogers plays the anti-war protestor Leeann, who signs up to be an Army nurse in Hawaii only to get shipped to "the Nam." Her discovery of hatred for the enemy is among the most riveting moments in this production, which is based on true stories. Jamille R. Johnson plays an army intelligence specialist whose prediction of the Tet Offensive is ignored; her frustration at being overlooked and dismissed is echoed by the rest of the characters in a powerful support-group session that unites the women in their grief and anger. Their musical promise to "study war no more" echoes ironically, given current events.
Director Emma Griffin moves the play along like an arrow bound for a target. The seamless transitions give the audience just enough time to comprehend the importance of one scene before the next begins. Griffin's collaboration with the designers and actors transforms the space almost magically: a bench and some synchronized light and sound cues are all that's needed to move characters from the hot dusty grounds of the army base to a cool dark hut where the troubles of war disappear in a cloud of smoke. True to life, the characters smoke profusely, which is a bit problematic in the small studio theater, even though the ventilation system is working as hard as it can.
The play ends with the dedication of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Each character brings a memento to leave at the wall. Some are emblems of grief, others of fond memories. The light representing the wall remains illuminated, allowing the audience to contemplate the artifacts left by the characters. Some of us, of course, are more prone to contemplation than others: As we departed I overheard a man ahead of me remark, "I lost a lot of friends over there." Behind me, meanwhile, a youngish female voice announced, "I'm glad I wasn't an actress in that show! I'd be depressed for, like, two weeks!"