Many thanks to Michael Presley Bobbitt for seeing A Piece of My Heart— twice!– and giving it such a glowing review! Michael recently wrote and starred in Across the River at The SALT.
The ART’s current production of A Piece of My Heart caught me by surprise. After wading through the kiddie pool that was their last show—Kimberly Akimbo— it was a delight to experience a production of depth and importance, a play with something worth saying. A Piece of My Heart, on the surface, is a play about women in Vietnam. The themes of the story have been seen in other plays and war movies—women nurses and support personnel facing tragedy and bearing the cost of wars perpetrated by men. While the ground this play treads may not be new, the characters in A Piece of My Heart are developed fully and their stories are compelling to the audience right from the start.
The play follows the lives of six women—three nurses, a Red Cross volunteer, an Army intelligence specialist and a USO-style singer—all headed for Vietnam, and all but one naïve and hopeful to make a difference. As expected, things go south before their plane even lands on the ground. They come under rocket attack from the enemy, and are faced with the immediate realization that real war is nothing like they imagined. One of the women yells into the chaos of the besieged landing, “I’m just a normal girl, about to do something not very normal at all.” And of course they all are: normal girls who emerge from the crucible changed forever, extraordinary women with stories worth telling and lives worth celebrating.
More than the overall story itself, the distinguishing feature of this production, and why you should make time to see it, is the powerful acting performances of the six actors playing the women. Their individual travails are at times heartbreaking, exigent and harrowing, and the playwright manages to create a generally cohesive storyline that accomplishes the goal of exposing the horrors of war and the effect it had on its women participants. By and large, though, it is the skillful acting of the cast that turns this play from a pedestrian war story to something that will stick in your gut long after the final scene.
Norma Berger portrays Martha, a nurse that begs her way into the war and leaves it as head nurse in charge, with poise and authority. Even when everything is caving in around her, there is a quiet strength in her mannerisms that seems almost heroically out of place with her bright smile and hopeful demeanor. She is invested fully in the role and is believable throughout. Carlyn Howells portrays the quintessential USO-girl Maryjo. She looks incredible in her 60s stage attire, with a pained stare that echoes her haunting voice. She is part Joni Mitchell, part Tammy Wynette, mistreated by men but still trying to please them. Her voice is the soundtrack of the play, of all these characters’ lives, really, and it adds a richness to the play that heightens the emotional impact of the story. Her bluesy cover of Leaving on a Jet Plane is still sitting heavy on my heart. Rachel Warnes tackles the character of Whitney, an east-coast aristocratic girl with an Ivy League education and a call to service. She is the model of upper-class decorum and grace, and her statuesque frame and enunciative voice are perfect for the role. Watching the trappings of her civility break down under the pressures of war, seeing it so evocatively in her body language and tone, are some of the most powerful scenes in the play. All of the actors in the play have their main roles, and also stand in for multiple minor parts. Mako Horikoshi is solid as the Asian-American Leeann, who imagined duty in Hawaii where “everyone looks like me”, but ends up in a far less glamorous place where the people look like her there, too. She also shines as the Vietnamese housekeeper Bien, who is at times conciliatory and servient but in an instant displays the war-hardened street smarts of a survivalist in a world bent on her destruction. Sissy, played by Laura Beth Jackson, is the perfect embodiment of the sheltered American girl, wide-eyed and hopeful—a devastatingly effective straw man to tear apart with the unflinching brutality of war. Her performance is nuanced and skillful; this is an actor at the height of her powers and it is captivating to watch. Jorge DeJesus is perfectly camouflaged as the faceless face of all the men in the play. This is as it should be. This is a story about the women and he gives a gracious and effective performance in support of the main characters.
The sparse set design of Gabriel Hughes-Trinity is masterful in that it evokes the feel of the intended places but keeps the focus squarely on the rich characters of the women. Of particular note is Carolyne Salt’s lighting design, highlighted by the projection of names from the Vietnam Memorial Wall as the opening and closing scenes of the play. As a veteran, it felt reverential and sacred to me, and the hair on my arm stood up as I tried to choke back tears.
DeAnna Wright, who portrays B.J. Steele, gets her own paragraph in this review. As a career-Army hardened intelligence specialist, she is electrifying. She delivers the best individual performance I have seen on a Gainesville stage in the past decade. A black woman trying to offer intelligence advice to a chain-of-command comprised largely of white men makes her a classic Cassandra character in a world where “she just don’t fit on in”. Hers is the strongest feminist voice in the play, a woman of accomplishment and unyielding grit, someone truly besieged by inequality and prejudice but refusing to be beaten—by the war or the system. Where the play occasionally misses the mark is when it overreaches in casting women as downtrodden. [For instance when Whitney’s character screams, “Men made that war. A woman never made a war like that in her life.”] But for every moment like this, there are several more of Deanna Wright, throaty and fierce, exemplifying the powerful woman who finds a way to impact the world around her. That is the real message of the play: that these women found a way, in the face of horror and a system set against them, to leave their mark in a world gone mad.
This production is an example of how a powerful ensemble cast can make even the most difficult subject matter, even dialogue that is at times heavy-handed, thoroughly enjoyable to an audience. The individual performances are all noteworthy, but in concert with each other they are greater than the sum of their parts—the best on stage at the ART in many years. Not since Mike McShane and George Steven O’Brien’s turn in Sam Shepard’s True West has anything come close to the cohesion and chemistry of the women in A Piece of My Heart. Come see this play as a too-infrequent example of community theater reaching beyond its local horizons, of talented actors and competent direction on rare display.
Broadway needed an onstage helicopter to give its Vietnam play Miss Saigon a forceful punch. This production of A Piece of My Heart needs only Laura Jackson’s face, hopeful at last that God and family will prevail, to pull the audience in close—to leave us with the tiniest of hopes that even in the midst of unthinkable despair, better days are yet possible. This is theater at its finest.
A Piece of My Heart runs at the Acrosstown Repertory Theater at 619 S. Main Street, on Friday and Saturday nights at 8 PM, and Sunday afternoons at 2 PM, now through June 7, 2015.
Reprinted with permission.