"A Piece of My Heart" Provides Cathartic Look at War (Review)

Jan 22, 2014

Credit Corn Stock Theatre

The play, “A Piece of My Heart” presents a different perspective on the Vietnam War, telling the stories of six women who served. Douglas Oakey has this review of a production at Corn Stock Theatre, for Peoria Public Radio and the Live Theatre League. Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League.

In the generation following the end of the Vietnam War, Hollywood responded with a collection of films and TV shows presenting a complex and confounding national hand-wringing about U.S. involvement in that part of the world.  In nearly every case, the stories depicted were about the experiences of men.  However, at about the same time that the TV-viewing audience was mostly ignoring ABC’s “China Beach,” playwright Shirley Lauro wrote “A Piece of My Heart,” suggested by the book of the same name by Keith Walker. Based on interviews with dozens of women who served in one way or another during the war, the play tells the now-familiar story of fear, atrocity, tragedy, and healing—only this time from the point of view of women.  Amy DeTrempe [duh TREMP]-Williams directs a moving production of Lauro’s play at Corn Stock’s Winter Playhouse. 

Let’s dispense first with a few necessaries.  The show is not without its flaws.  For one thing, it’s too long, or feels like it, even though the payoff is eventually worth the wait.  And unlike most shows at the Winter Playhouse, including those with much larger casts, in this production the arena staging often becomes an obstacle.  And finally, there were moments when actors’ voice projection interfered with the delivery of material.

But in the broad strokes of the production and in most of the individual elements, the play shines.  It is moving, appalling, frightening, redemptive, and ultimately cathartic.  After some difficult starting moves, the cast finds their footing and electrifies the atmosphere in the space.

Melinda Watkins plays musician Mary Jo, a bubbly Texan who is unprepared for the treatment she will experience at the hands of the men she is trying to serve with her smiles and her music. Watkins conveys Mary Jo’s disillusionment and gradual disintegration when she experiences personal violence and tragedy.  Whitney, a Red Cross worker is played by Lisa Chamberlain. A degree of reserve is part of Whitney’s character.  Chamberlain comes alive in the show’s second act but should be careful not to allow reserve to substitute for a fully realized portrayal of the character.

Hippy free spirit Leeann is played by Umiko [OO meek oh] Post.  Leeann, who has Asian ancestry, becomes an army nurse hoping to see Hawaii.  Her story is chilling in human and racial terms, and Post conveys all of the jagged ambivalence in Leeann’s experience.  A bit more vocal projection is all one can ask of her performance.  Closely aligned with Leeann is Sissy, a stereotypically sunny girl-next-door type.  The trajectory of the character is easy to anticipate, but Kristen Connor’s portrayal does not disintegrate into cliché.  Her own tragic moments are among the most wrenching in the show, and Connor moves the viewer profoundly.

Of most note is the excellent Jasmyne Providence as the aptly named Steele, the intelligence officer.  Providence strides onto the stage with all of Steele’s mettle on full display. It’s difficult at first to anticipate how this titan will experience anything she can’t handle, but Providence finds the vulnerable spots in her character.  It is Steele’s anger that conveys much of the unexpected tragedy in the story. 

The actors portray each of their characters as well as minor roles in the stories of their castmates.  They are more than ably assisted by Ian Munk and Alex Larson as various male characters both central and peripheral to the women’s stories.  It turns out to be a formidable ensemble.  The general narrative style will be familiar to anyone who has seen “The Laramie Project,” and DeTrempe-Williams mostly keeps the show moving at a reasonable pace. 

One member of the Corn Stock company has described the show as “uplifting.”  I don’t agree, but this is not a criticism of the production.  Sometimes we need to experience the pain, and the uplift comes later.  This is what Aristotle called catharsis, and it’s what “A Piece of My Heart” is all about.