Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham

A Piece of My Heart
Raleigh Little Theatre
Review by Garrett Southerland


Photo by Brenna Lila Jane Berry-Stewart
General William Tecumseh Sherman said that "war is hell," a sentiment undoubtedly echoed by nearly anyone who has seen combat, be it on the open fields of Gettysburg in the mid-nineteenth century or the humid jungles of Vietnam in the late twentieth century. Though many films and plays have recounted wars from the a soldier's perspective, few have examined the female experience in particular. Raleigh Little Theatre's production of A Piece of My Heart, written by Shirley Lauro and suggested by the book by Keith Walker, attempts to do so by taking as its source material the oral histories of twenty-six of the uncounted civilian women who served in Vietnam on behalf of the Red Cross and other organizations.

Ms. Lauro's play focuses on six female characters—four nurses, an intelligence analyst, and an entertainer—plus one male actor playing as many men. The women's stories are interwoven, with the actresses going from enlistment to service and then life back to civilian society. They arrive in Vietnam from different places, for different reasons, and with different understandings of what they will experience, but if one thing is made clear by the end of the play, none of them return unscathed, and for the rest of their lives, none of them will ever have come back completely from Vietnam. These are important stories, and they should be heard and honored.

The Gaddy-Goodwin Theatre is a black box that is well suited to this type of show, in which hearing the actors without microphones adds to the intimacy. The particular strength of this production lies in Elizabeth Newton's simplistic yet striking scenic design that evokes the well-known Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. A drape of parachute curtain behind it is used for projections of vintage images from the war, which reinforce the women's narratives.

The play itself is problematic. It casts these women's stories too broadly, focusing on the expected, horrific moments but relying on the universality of that horror rather than investigating the personal. From these women's struggles with violence, sexism, racism, and the anti-war sentiment that divided the country, the themes come across more as history and histrionics than a meaningful presentation of characters. The complex rhythm of cross-cutting monologue and dialogue leads to the impression of the six women giving one blurred account, sacrificing individual impressions.

That textual intricacy may have contributed to almost all of the cast struggling to remember lines and cues at the performance I attended, a problem that grew more noticeable in the second act. While three shipping crates stenciled with military text are put to an inspiring array of uses as the set, the cast's efforts to move them around frequently sabotage the forward momentum of the performance. Sound design by Min Ming Hsu and lighting design by Elizabeth Grimes Droessler provide startling effects, from bombs dropping to artillery fire, but the sound effects drown out the voices of the actors at times.

A Piece of My Heart never seems to be more than a history lesson in physical form. And though there are many moments clearly designed for emotional resonance, nothing in this production makes more than a fleeting impression, either because of weaknesses in the writing or the over-earnestness of the performances. One of the characters tells a civilian upon returning from the war, "You don't know what it was like, you were never there." That is the fundamental contradiction of this play and this production, which has spent two hours trying to tell us what it was like. A truth unchanged by any criticism of any performance is that we should learn and honor the contributions and sacrifices of women in armed conflicts, whether it be in Vietnam or elsewhere.

Advisory: The play contains adult situations and language. There are numerous sensory recreations of war that may be difficult for some. Parental guidance is suggested.

A Piece of My Heart is presented by the Raleigh Little Theatre in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, NC 27607 through May 21st, 2017. Tickets are $24 for adults, $20 for seniors (62 and up) and students, $15 for all on the first Sunday. Tickets can be purchased online at www.raleighlittletheatre.org or by phone at 919-821-3111.

Playwright: Shirley Lauro
Suggested by the book by: Keith Walker
Director: Mia Self
Costume Design: Vicki Olson
Scenic Design: Elizabeth Newton
Lighting Design: Elizabeth Grimes Droessler
Sound Design: Min Ming Hsu

Cast:
Leeann: Emily James
Maryjo: Dara Lyon Warner
Steele: Jacqueline Deas-Brown
Whitney: Jean Jamison
Martha: Laura J. Parker
Sissy: Elaine Quagliata
Man: Matthew Tucker

Photo by: Brenna Lila Jane Berry-Stewart


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