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Review: West End Players Guild’s Production of ‘Piece of My Heart’ Reflects on Vietnam

Review: West End Players Guild’s Production of ‘Piece of My Heart’ Reflects on Vietnam

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Play: “A Piece of My Heart”

Company: West End Players Guild

Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd., St. Louis

Dates: Dec. 16 to 19

Tickets: $20 to $25; visit westendplayers.org/tickets

Highlights: West End Players Guild steps back in time with a sobering and affecting rendition of Shirley Lauro’s 1991 drama about the impact of the Vietnam War on six women who served there at the height of the controversial conflict.

Story: Six women gather at the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1982 and reflect on their own lives, which were impacted by their service in the Vietnam War circa 1970.

Martha is the daughter of a career military couple who yearns to follow in their footsteps and enlists as a nurse to care for wounded soldiers. She’s joined by Sissy, who sees serving as a nurse as her ticket out of small-town Erie, Pennsylvania. Leeann is an idealistic young woman who’s been to Woodstock and is now drawn by the appeal of helping wounded veterans in what her recruiter tells her will be a hospital in Hawaii.

Steele is a Black career officer and nurse who has been repeatedly overlooked for promotions due to her sex and race. Whitney joins the Red Cross over the disapproval of her wealthy parents, who only hope she’ll find an eligible doctor to marry. And 17-year- old MaryJo straps her guitar to her back, eagerly accepting an offer by a shady agent to entertain the troops in Vietnam with her band.

They come from different backgrounds, educational levels and races but stand united in their belief that they are doing their part for their nation by addressing the needs of the hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers they encounter in Vietnam. When the war finally ends, they realize that their struggles are only just beginning.

Other Info: Those of us of a certain age are whisked back to the late ’60s and early ’70s by the music of Kareem Deanes’ expertly crafted sound design, which not only includes standards of the era by Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival and others but also the realistic bombing noises which shatter the fragile comfort zone of the nurses, “donut dolly” and musician almost immediately on their arrival on Southeast Asian soil.

The well-honed lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder additionally benefits the setting, rising and falling with the violent intrusions of warfare in the tropical climate. Katie Orr’s props add ballast to the lean scenic design of Zac Cary, which cleverly uses camouflage on the floor leading up to the set, highlighted by an abbreviated Wall of Names at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the background.

“A Piece of My Heart” is set in two acts, with the first one decidedly the better of the two. That’s where the ensemble, aided by Deanes’ relentless sounds of battle, does their best work as they bring back the harrowing memories of the Vietnam War era, since replicated in Iraq, Afghanistan an elsewhere. The intensity of the action, relieved with the women’s retreat into alcohol, marijuana and Bob Hope Christmas shows, dominates Lauro’s story, which was based on a book of interviews with real Vietnam War women.

While the second act recounts the unpleasant experiences encountered by the women on their return, including sickness wrought by Agent Orange and the contempt of a growing number of Americans about Vietnam and anyone involved in the bloody battles, it pales in comparison to the more arresting first act. Still, the disillusionment of the women and their resolve to move forward is a painful reminder of the ugly stain left by the Vietnam War.

Director Dani Mann elicits strong performances by the six women and one man in the cast. There is fine work by Mara Bollini as Martha, Chelsie Johnston as MaryJo, Madison Jackson as Sissy, Annalise Webb as Whitney, Vicky Chen as Leeann, Patience Davis as Steele and Shane Signorino, who adeptly handles all of the brief male roles in the story with conviction.

Johnston exhibits a pleasant if “small” voice when MaryJo sings, either as background to a scene or in her musician mode, although a little stronger “belting” would be appreciated at such times.

“A Piece of My Heart” begins and ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, most fitting for this tribute to the women and men who served in that riven nation in a variety of capacities, including thousands who never made it home or returned on a long road to rehabilitation. We are indebted to them and all veterans at this festive season and throughout the year.

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