A Piece of My Heart
Also see Richard's review of Cannibal! The Musical
Under the direction of Erin Vlasaty, act one goes well: actresses who seem to span nearly three decades in age portray characters who are shocked at their lack of career options at home in the 1950s and '60, and even more shocked at what awaits them in the US Army. Barbara Swift Coleman plays the eldest and is sterling as an intelligence officer yearning for something a little less insular than life as a stateside WAC.
Fran Jackson, likewise, carefully unwraps her own multi-layered life experience to build her characters, lavishing detail even in the occasional little dialog scenes, as a variety of people in the other nurses' lives. Ms. Jackson's and Ms. Coleman's own sensitivity, and their psychological stratification, shines through to establish genuine plausibility on stage, especially when each "woman of a certain age" must confront the nurse's own worst fears. But, for the most part, Shirley Lauro's script is just a series of monologs delivered in the familiar "hood-ornament" way, demanding a great deal of emotional insight and intensity from each performer.
Things turn especially dramatic in act two, at the launch of the Tet Offensive of January 31, 1968. At that point, all the assumed nobility of the monologist goes out the window, replaced (for what seems like 20 minutes) by shrieking and shouting and brash delivery that is more off-putting than revelatory, and far from the image of a 1960s American woman. Is it some kind of a crime for a modern American girl to be caught acting helpless, or genuinely afraid? The unstated premise of the younger performers seems to be that they're just too brave or tough for the roles they've accepted. Or perhaps, in the land of relative peace and prosperity, those nerves have finally just atrophied.
And yet, and yet: Julie Smailys is the most interesting of the younger actresses, playing a country singer who goes half-way around the world to entertain the troops. At first she just seems like a hopeless mess. But in act two, she reveals a surprising grasp of irony: trying to find love with a kindred spirit after Vietnam. It's more than we get from the other young women.
Brad Kinzel is one of the two men in the show, playing a veritable platoon of young soldiers, some maimed, some dying, and some merely stunned by the presence of American women so far from home. He never fails to touch our hearts. And Joe O'Connor is fantastic in his various characters, especially as a series of officers dismissing Ms. Coleman's Nurse Steele, whose intelligence-gathering abilities have accurately predicted the coming Tet Offensive. Both Mr. Kinzel and Mr. O'Connor are fearless in portraying the weakness and fallibility of their own gender.
Monica Wickey, Samantha Haase, and Andrea Hyon Taylor all seem like good actresses, but I'd much rather see them in a light comedy, or perhaps ten years from now, after life's given them some involuntary seasoning. Ms. Hyon Taylor is grounded in clear-eyed realism, Ms. Haase is a classic beauty, and Ms. Wickey is possessed of a kind of child-like yearning that will take her far. It's just a little hard to believe that any of them knows how to draw from personal crisis on the stage. That may be the central flaw in the production itself, which relies on young actresses to tell a story of growing old very fast, and then looking back in astonishment. Perhaps the director should have cast their mothers, instead.
A Piece of My Heart, suggested by a book by Keith Walker, continues through November 20, 2011 at the Washington University South Campus, 6501 Clayton Road, a block east (or so) of Big Bend Blvd. Theater parking is on the west side of the building (the former CBC Prep School). For more information visit the Clayton Community Theatre online at www.placeseveryone.org.