Many people who lived in the United States during the Vietnam era still maintain conflicting ideas about the United States’ involvement in the war with some finding closure, while others carry lifelong scars from the conflict.
The current play, Piece of My Heart produced by Olathe Civic Theatre Association (OCTA), written by Shirley Lauro provides a different look at the conflict–from the standpoint of a Red Cross nurse, four unit nurses, and a touring entertainer. All emerged from the conflict with an entirely unique understanding and memories of the soldiers, Vietnamese people, and the time served.
Piece of My Heart plunges five naive nurses into the reality of hand to hand combat operations, treating the wounded and dying, on the front lines of the Vietnam War as they realize they have been duped by recruiters and believe their work keeps them above the conflict. Upon a dive landing on New Year’s Eve, they initially think the Vietnamese celebrate the holiday with exuberance only to find the shocking reality that they entered a war zone and are targets of the missiles.
The production presents a harsh look at the ugly side of war. Piece of My Heart shatters the preconceived vision of army medical units so inaccurately depicted in M*A*S*H* that shows a somber but lighter side of conflicts. The relationships on that TV show do not touch the desperation and despair of the actual medical staff that encountered daily drama, life and death pressured decisions, sexual escape, abundant drug usage, and excessive alcohol use (and abuse).
As an added bonus, OCTA works with several Vietnam nurses who remain after several selected performances to relate their personal experiences and answer questions and respond to comments from the audience. The 30 minute talkback session encouraged participation and facilitated a free exchange among attendees.
OCTA gave the charge to direct Piece of My Heart to Betsy Sexton. Sexton assembled a strong cast and used the needed woman’s touch to deliver the compassion of the piece and a softness to the harsh reality of the storyline. A female look at the women-driven story allows the care, compassion, and softness of the piece to balance the harshness of the war zone and the hateful America that never welcomed the Vietnam veterans home. Even less recognition cam to the women who served there. Sexton’s idea to have actual nurses from that conflict address audiences being a realistic connection to the piece.
Four talented actresses portrayed the front line nurses. Meghann Bates played Martha; Diane Bufan portrayed Steele; Em Loper undertook Sissy; and Ericka Crane Ricketts played Lee Ann. They enact the emotions of naive nurses who never understood the harshness of the assignment they undertook. All give convincing portrayals of nurses under fire and shunned upon their return to the United States. They gave heart-felt insight into their post-Vietnam experiences. All are very talented actresses to watch.
As a Red Cross volunteer, looking to enhance her East Coast, privileged background, Alli Tunnell grabs hold of her part and shows a softer side to the emotional distress encountered. She fortifies how families split on the Vietnam War and the expectations of Red Cross workers that placed them on a different plane than many front line nurses. She established in her initial lines that she comes from an upper class family background and sees everything from a different perspective, which adds to the diversity of lives altered with war–any war.
A difficult portrayal lays in the capable hands of Devon Barnes who goes to war as an entertainer, promised money, all expenses paid, accommodations, and the hopes of building upon her singing career. Barnes’ Mary Jo undergoes so many changes and situations, but none so harsh as the reality check upon her return. Because she was a performer, she never experiences the camaraderie of the four nurses. She does not connect with the Red Cross worker. She stands alone as a person at war, in the war, and ultimately effected by the war. Her return, like the others is not anticipated and memorials and such do not touch her past or current needs because she is separated from all aspects of returning veterans. Barnes does a great job in keeping Mary Jo on target and focused, especially at the end scenes of Piece of My Heart.
No war piece can come to life without the men who fought the war. As such, Piece of My Heart uses only a solo actor to portray all the masculine G. I.’s in the piece. Because the piece focuses on female veterans and predominately their nursing experiences, males are not the focus of the piece. Because of this focus on the women of war, faces and names of the men in the scenes remain minimal. Undertaking the perplexities of presenting a myriad of men, situations, personas, generalizations and specifics, newcomer to the metro area, Andy Tyhurst portrays, the Man, as it is listed in the cast list. As such, he is Everyman and every veteran in each entrance and exit. On stage, he suffers several catastrophic wounds and deaths. Tyhurst gives each character a different stance, walk, gesture, facial expression, mood, and temperament to give them life. His acting is very sharply focused on demonstrating the various individuals he portrayed in the piece.
Piece of My Heart delves deeply into the lives of nurses in all conflict zones and gives a timeless look in the horrors of combat. The show digs to new depths as it unfolds. Act II gives a real, yet somber viewing of life and lives after combat. The show sheds light on PTSD and other events triggered by war. Piece of My Heart depicts the unseen wounds and emotional crises of veterans. Even though the show’s focus is Vietnam, the after-effects of all wars and the reaction of the home shores comes into sharp focus.
The show is definitely a drama and is not appropriate for younger children. The show contains adult language, but definitely entertains, educates, and encourages dialogue about war and Vietnam. The show would be a good way to open talking points about the harshness of war in WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other conflicts. Some with PTSD may find the show too uncomfortable to view. Be advised. The show comes with the highest recommendations.
Piece of My Heart runs for one more weekend at OCTA. For tickets: olathetheatre.org.