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Theater Review: “A Piece of My Heart”

Emily Candia as Sissy, Emilee Zuniga as Leanne.
Photo credit:
Adriana Zuniga-Williams

Four Vietnam War-era photos projected on the theater wall at the top of Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart” set the scene for what is to follow. Some you will immediately recognize, others perhaps not, but they all speak to the tragedy of that war.

Some 1500 women served in Nam, though that is an approximation because no numbers were kept. Most of them were nurses (women were not allowed in combat until 2013).

Lauro gives us six women who went to serve in Vietnam. Three were nurses, one entertainer, an intelligence officer and a Red Cross employee.

They went for different reasons: Leann and Sissy are looking for the excitement of the unknown; country/western singer MaryJo hopes to advance her career; Vassar grad Whitney thinks she’ll end up in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan city of Saigon, where she can use her college French; Leann’s recruiter hinted that she might end up in Hawaii; African American Steele has known major racism already, but wants to use her experience in military intelligence “for once to save some lives.”

The lone man in the cast is Devin Wade, playing a variety of male characters.

“A Piece of My Heart” is arranged like a sort of theatrical lazy Susan. Hector Cisneros’ set consists primarily of a six-level uneven black platform, which the actors rotate on, climbing and hopping around with amazing abandon. It is here that much of the script, mostly a series of monologues, is delivered. It may sound like a school speech contest but is actually quite effective.

After basic training in which they are forced to march like the men – and told about Proper Behavior (unlike the men) – the nurses dive into their jobs and find them to be difficult, exhausting and depressing, with long hours and horrifying injuries to be treated. But the forced interdependence of the situation leads these women to work as a team in fairly short order. 

Though these women don’t have the time or energy for sexual trysts, they’re happy for the tip given them by a former nurse: “Whatever you do bring sexy underwear! A year in boots and fatigues and that dirt and heat and you forget what sex you are.” And, like the men, they report that “We consumed an enormous amount of alcohol in Vietnam.”

These women may not have had equal rights, but they surely had equally disappointing treatment when they returned home after the war.  “I’m the only thing that’s different since I got back,” reports one.

Like the men, they were spat on and called “baby killers” by their fellow citizens, picketed and insulted. When they went back to work, the nurses found the job situation much less interesting and that they were treated like newbies who had to be taught the basics. 

Director James P Darvas has a sterling cast. The nurses (Emily Candia, Allison MacDonald and Emilee Zuniga) show the caring you’d get from any nurse, anywhere, and must have been a steadying influence to the wounded.

Sarah LeClair’s spunky MaryJo seems to be channeling Dolly Parton with her powerful voice and down-home delivery. 

Ray-Anna Ranae’s Steele, used to racist treatment, at least gets to do something she’s good at.

Carla Navarro’s Vassar grad Whitney is out of her depth in this situation, but she brings a degree of dedication to her administrative job with the Red Cross.

Devin Wade is excellent in a variety of roles.

Kudos to M. Keala Milles, Jr. for the fine lighting and sound design, and to Pam Stompoly-Ericson for the appropriate costumes.

Winner of The Barbara Deming Prize for Women Playwrights and the Kittredge Foundation Award, “A Piece of My Heart” has been named “the most enduring play in the nation on Vietnam” by The Vietnam Vets Association. 

OnStage and director Teri Brown have done this riveting but sad piece of history proud.

The details

“A Piece of My Heart” plays through October 14, 2017 at OnStage Playhouse, 

291 Third Avenue (near F Street), Chula Vista.

Thursday through Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 422-7787 or www.onstageplayhouse.org