`Piece of My Heart' gives jolt to the system
By BRIAN SEAMAN
Scene Theater Critic
For college students of the 1990's, it is hard to believe that teenage boys could have fought in a war, a war from which many of those teenagers never returned. Fathers of teens today understood this all too well, and for many of them, their generation was shaped within the confines of the Vietnam War and the fears of their draft number being called.
Yet since 30 years ago when Vietnam began, it is only now that attention is being paid to the sacrifice young women made during this era, sacrifices of time, labor and emotion. This was the focus of Saint Mary's production of Shirley Lauro's play, "A Piece of My Heart."
From the opening image of the production, with the six women whose stories will be told standing in silhouette with backs to the audience, it is apparent that the tales that comprise the play are personal ones — tales that could only be told by the women who experienced Vietnam first hand.
The characters come from a range of backgrounds: from an upper-class college girl from Vassar, to a hippie rocker want- ing to find stardom, to an anti-war demonstrator. Yet when they arrive in Vietnam, their pasts are surrendered to a fearful present of uncertainty, one in which all they know and believe will be questioned.
While this would seem a daunting task for an actress, the six women featured in this production were able to portray the gamut of emotions and comprehend the situations faced by women during Vietnam. Besides the primary character they played, each actress also took on several minor characters met by the women in Vietnam, and the actresses were able to transform with great ease.
One especially stirring performance was given by Saint Mary's freshman Afrika Green in her first performance on a college stage. While at times some of the actresses seemed to be consciously acting, Green's nuanced performance was at all times engrossing and she commanded the stage whenever she was speaking.
In one scene, Green portrayed a wounded soldier in a military hospital, and while she did not speak a word in the scene, one was able to discover a real sense of horror and madness in her face. In that moment, it was jarring for the audience, for it was shockingly apparent that she was nothing more than a teenager who had just been wounded in a war so far from home.
It is this very quality — an understanding of the enormity of the grim circumstance forced upon these young women — that was lacking in the overall production. The actresses in the production are in the same age range as the women who went to Vietnam, yet at times, emotions seemed forced and circumstances seemed foreign.
Such an absence seemed to manifest itself in a lack of coherence throughout the production. While the direction was very inventive and fast-paced, there was no overlying feeling, no fog of fear or hope or despair that surrounded the production and gave it a sense of unity.
In one scene, a barrage of bullets and fire rings through a hospital ward, and the young women rush about the stage in a flurry of petrified ignorance. The effect is moving and frightening. Yet the previous scene presented an inefficient chain of command played out as a laughable game of musical chairs and boot stomping, a staging concept more suited to musical comedy.
This shockingly fast change in mood and staging may be indicative of the string of emotions expressed by those in Vietnam. But for an audience member, it was difficult to comprehend.
One minor detail also apparently lacking was a stress on the formal civilities of the military, most noticeably marching and saluting. It is logical that new recruits would be not be precision marchers, yet it seems very illogical that a woman in the army for 18 years and two high level military figures would salute in a way akin to children playing war.
Despite these minor details, the cast of "A Piece of My Heart" was able to aptly illustrate the horror of war and how teenagers can be moved across the world and become new people.
While the cast and production were all equally strong, the most impressive performance was given by senior Kate Murphy. Her all-American face so apparently changed throughout the show, and her calm collected descent into fear was remarkable.
While playing an accessory character, a veteran nurse teaching a rookie to keep her emotions in check, Kate had a reluctant lack of sensitivity that was so utterly true. This small character and all the rest that she played were superb. Moments before returning home from Vietnam, her eyes held a frightened knowledge of what she had experienced, and this image was unforgettable.
This image was just one of many unforgettable scenes in this production. If nothing else, it reminded an audience of college students that their parents fought in a war, a war that emerged at a time when their biggest worries were just like those today: getting good grades, finding love, having fun.
Those who were involved in Vietnam struggled immensely, and it takes a play like this to remind people of that.
All Scene Stories for Monday, November 15, 1999