A Piece of My Heart

It’s an incredible tragedy that when Americans remember our modern war heroes we largely forget about the thousands of heroines that served along with them.

During the Vietnam War, about 11,000 women were stationed in the country, according to the Vietnam Women’s Memorial Foundation. The majority served as nurses, about 90 percent, but some also served as physicians, intelligence officers and air traffic controllers.

Nearly all the women in Vietnam were volunteers.

“A Piece of My Heart” follows six young women thrown into a war zone on a story of calamity, confusion and inner conflict that is rarely seen in popular war stories. This story is unique not only in that it shows the war through women’s eyes but also because it focuses on battles behind the frontlines.

The struggles on display here include chaotic instants of combat you would expect but largely revolve around the life and death tug-of-war the inexperienced nurses play. The women also battle sexism, sexual abuse and war weariness in Vietnam as well as anti-war sentiment at home and not to mention post-traumatic stress disorder.

The play, written by Shirley Lauro, deals with Vietnam with such straightforward authenticity that every character’s cry and laugh has a direct emotional impact on the audience. When LeeAnn, played by Helen Martin, screams in fear and when Sissy, played by Erin O’Loughlin, seems to be having a panic attack I got second-hand anxiety.

LaNita Hudson’s performance was especially captivating as she brought not only sass to her character Steele, an intelligence officer, but also a no-nonsense persona that was quick to point out the irrationality in military bureaucracy.

Helen Martin also charmed the audience with her portrayal of LeeAnn as a young inexperienced woman reluctant to cooperate in the war effort having only volunteered to go to Hawaii. Though her character is light-hearted and brings a humorous zeal in the beginning, war changes LeeAnn into a wounded woman.

Under Randy Clark’s direction, the production is fast-paced and gripping even when bullets aren’t flying. Perhaps a big part of what made the characters so easy to sympathize with was the minimalist approach to costume and set design.

The costumes changes, for the most part, only involved a change from civilian cardigans to army jackets. The stage was made up of a platform and some boxes the actors could set up to be a desk, chair or hospital bed, but the specifics were left to our imagination. The audience was transported from Seattle to Vietnam, from a field hospital to a 70’s party featuring Led-Zeppelin, using a sound board and a projector.

At first glance, it had seemed too bare-bones and unimaginative to me. For one, where was the jungle? Where was the war? But I quickly realized as a dying soldier’s hands slid off his chest toward the ground that anything more could have distracted me from LeeAnn’s reaction to his death. The uncluttered set pulls you into the characters and makes you realize it’s not the war that matters, but the victims, dead or alive.

A Piece of My Heart, by Shirley Lauro. Directed by Randy Clark. Dukesbay Theater, 508 6th Ave., Tacoma, WA, Friday, Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. through Nov. 13. Tickets: http://dukesbayheart.bpt.me/ Info: http://dukesbay.org/shows/

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