Dramas about the Vietnam war have mostly focused on the experience of soldiers, the men who served, and their resulting trauma. Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, based on true accounts, chronicles the stories of six American women during the war, the challenges they faced while there, and the after effects once they returned home.
Three military nurses, a Red Cross volunteer, an intelligence officer and a country western singer who is recruited to entertain the troops, bond over their devotion to the soldiers in their care. Although they hail from different walks of life and different parts of the country, miserable living and working conditions and an overwhelming amount of blood and death serve as a great equalizer.
As with their past productions, Firebox Theatre offered another emotionally engaging and immersive experience in their space at The Graham Johnson Cultural Center. Director Tim Artz keeps the ensemble constantly moving. He effectively uses all the space on an open, sparse, multi-tiered stage, as well as the areas behind and to the side of the audience to reflect the disorienting noise and chaos of war. In the first act, this pulsing activity underscores the brutality of combat and its effect on the women, particularly their need to escape the crushing pain by turning to alcohol and drugs.
While these women may have had very naive expectations of what their service would entail, they were even more sorely unprepared for their treatment once they returned home. The second act highlights the anti-war sentiment, sexism, and disrespect they encountered, which adds to their trauma. Once again, they had to find ways to navigate their lives despite what had happened to them.
Artz’s ensemble distinguished itself admirably, both in their individual performances and in group moments, exuding a camaraderie born of shared experience. Each brought a great deal of heart and empathy to their roles, giving full rein to the emotional and psychic toll of the experiences on their characters. This astounding cast (Hilary Edwards, Raénique Dawson, Cora Hemphill, Ni Vu, Cassie Ford and Kendall Mason) effectively carried the audience on their journeys, providing an insight into the range of service women’s involvement in Vietnam. Eli Brand competently carried the load of playing all the male roles.
Nominally, this is ensemble storytelling at a heightened level with each actor elevating their specific narratives into emotionally compelling tales that equal the power of the listing of names on the Vietnam War Memorial. And though the final moments of Lauro’s play prove to be cathartic, the stunning reality is that wars continue to traumatize society both from behind the lines and on the homefront.
For more information on Firebox Theatre’s upcoming productions visit https://www.fireboxtheatre.com/.