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A Piece of My Heart
by Shirley Lauro
Directed by Dani Mann
West End Players Guild
December 11, 2021

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

The Vietnam War is something to learn about in history class for today’s young people, and many adults do not remember the war first-hand, either by participating, protesting, or watching and reading news reports. It’s a war that ended when I was a child, but is still in living memory for many people in the Baby Boomer generation and older. It’s been the subject of many stories, books, plays, tv shows, and movies, even if now its memory is seeming more distant as the years go by.  Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart, the latest production from West End Players Guild, brings the war and its aftermath for those who participated–and specifically the women–into immediate, sharp, and stunning focus. It’s a profound lesson and theatrical experience, and an especially strong showcase for a first-rate cast.

One aspect of this play that I especially appreciate is that it covers a fairly “complete” experience of the war for its characters. The war itself only covers the first act, as six women describe their experiences of the war and what they did there. The second act covers their experiences after returning to the United States. The six women represent various backgrounds and levels of experience, and there is one actor (Shane Signorino) who plays the various male characters the women interact with over the years, from soldiers to doctors, fathers to boyfriends to talent agents, etc. As reflects reality, nurses comprise a significant portion of the cast. There’s Martha (Mara Bollini), who grew up in a military family and whose mother was also a Navy nurse; Sissy (Madison Jackson), who comes from a relatively sheltered background; and Leeann (Vicky Chen), who is of Chinese and Italian descent and was active in protests against the war. There’s also Red Cross volunteer Whitney (Annalise Webb), who comes from a wealthy background; career Army “WAC” Steele (Patience Davis), who has faced discrimination over her 18 years in the military before going to Vietnam because she’s Black and a woman; and MaryJo (Chelsie Johnston), a singer and guitar player who is recruited with her band to travel around entertaining the troops. Throughout the dramatic and sometimes harrowing events of the play, we see each woman’s experience of the war and what happens to them after they return home. The story culminates with the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC in 1982, as the main characters are among the many vets who convened in the nation’s capital for the event.

The play itself is an especially poignant and at times intense experience, with descriptions of war-related violence, death, PTSD, assault, rape, and strong language including usage of racial and ethnic slurs. There’s a note in the program concerning this content, as well. It’s a heavy show, as it’s about a war and many difficult experiences related to that war. It also serves as something of an education concerning issues that the general public we made more aware of as a result of this war; especially concerning the mental and physical health effects on its participants. It’s a vivid, personalized portrayal, giving names and faces to the thousands of women who served during the war, and acknowledging their roles as essential, even when they weren’t always appreciated at the time. 

The staging is dynamically paced and visually memorable, with an excellent set by Zac Cary, vivid lighting by Nathan Schroeder, and strong sound design by Kareem Deanes. There’s also excellent music of the period played before the show and at intermission, as well as strong live singing and playing by Johnston as MaryJo, who provides a stirring soundtrack to the proceedings in several key moments. There’s also a uniformly outstanding cast,  as everyone plays a variety of characters in addition to their main roles. Everyone has memorable moments, with especially notable work from Chen as she recounts the story of her friendship with a soldier during the war; as well as Webb as Whitney struggles with coping with her experiences and using alcohol to mask the pain; Davis, as Steele deals with more distrust and discrimination as she works in intelligence; Jackson as Sissy recounts describes physical effects of the war on herself and her family; and in a profoundly affecting moment and perhaps the most intense emotional moment in the play, Bollini as Martha recounts her PTSD and overall homecoming experience in a support group. Signorino also does an excellent job portraying a range of men of different roles and personalities over the course of the story. The ensemble chemistry is also especially strong, contributing much to the overall affecting nature of this play.

A Piece of My Heart may not be an easy show to watch at times, but it’s more than worthwhile. With a vivid portrayal of the experience of war in general, as well as the specifics of the Vietnam war and the women who served there, this is a highly stirring, profound theatrical presentation. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the true highlights of the St. Louis theatre season this year.

Cast of A Piece of My Heart
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting A Piece of My Heart at Union Avenue Christian Church until December 19, 2021

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