Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

A Piece of my Heart
West End Players Guild

Review by Richard T. Green

Also see Richard's review of A Christmas Carol

Madison Jackson, Vicky Chen, Patience Davis,
Annalise Webb, Mara Bollini, Chelsie Johnston

Photo by John C. Lamb
If you already had Mara Bollini on your "Best Actress of 2021" bingo card, you've been way ahead of me all year. She usually performs in one or two shows every season in one company or another, but in the background: supplying attention to detail and the requisite likability for every production she's in. (She played my daughter in a show about 20 years ago, a hectic farce across town.) But this time, the opportunities, and the director at West End Players Guild, are very different. In Shirley Lauro's gripping play about American nurses serving in Vietnam, A Piece of My Heart, Ms. Bollini takes us into a painfully authentic, seventeen-car pileup of anguished grief and torment late in act two, under the direction of Dani Mann. Accept no substitutes.

Thanks to director Mann, our eyes go exactly where they should as we are drawn into the story of six young women. They come from all sorts of backgrounds, but each feels personally compelled to volunteer as a nurse in Indochina in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly through the Red Cross. In return, they live through many stories of servicemen's lives cruelly cut short, or nightmarish war injuries, which the ill-prepared nurses must treat. And there are plenty of stories of violence and romance in their own lives, which they must navigate with fumbling honesty and as much lonely perseverance as they can muster.

It's a cleansing experience for the audience, and you're guaranteed to be counting your blessings after this show, humbled by the nurses' sacrifice. Patience Davis is relentless and later nearly broken, as both a nurse and an intelligence officer. Annalise Webb shows highly admirable nuance and development as Whitney, the rich girl. As Leann, Vicky Chen is driven (as are most of the nurses) to some degree of madness by the culture shock of suddenly being on the frontlines of war, and then coming home to antiwar protests. And Madison Jackson is haunting as a young mother who brought Agent Orange symptoms back with her, and passed them on to her daughter, after her service.

Chelsie Johnston plays the beautiful folk-rock singer who performs for the troops, and draws in the nurses as backup singers or dancers a couple of times, to wonderful effect, with choreography by Amy Learn. Shane Signorino plays a dizzying array of American servicemen, frightened or gruff—including a giddy number of spins and twists and evasions as a series of intelligence officers in one scene, giving Patience Davis the runaround before the infamous Tet Offensive of 1968, which she has foreseen and tries to warn about.

It's strangely refreshing to see a non-Christmas show like this in the middle of December. Regular drama has been losing the war on Christmas shows for the past several years in these parts. And this one totally fulfills West End Players Guild's promise of "big theatre in a small space." All the tech people give it their absolute best, with a cumulative effect that's overwhelming, triggering a kind of psychic rebirth in those of us who were too young to go over there at the time. And, really, the best Christmas presents are the ones you can use all year—in this case, for humility, empathy and grit. A Piece of My Heart earns all its warnings about PTSD and ethnic slurs, but that only makes it more real.

West End Players Guild's A Piece of My Heart runs through December 19, 2021, at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Boulevard, St. Louis MO. Masks are required. There's a lighted parking lot behind the church. For tickets and information visit

Martha: Mara Bollini
MaryJo: Chelsie Johnston
Sissy: Madison Jackson
Whitney: Annalise Webb
Leeann: Vicky Chen
Steele: Patience Davis
All the American Men: Shane Signorino

Production Staff:
Director: Dani Mann
Assistant Director/Stage Manager: Betsy Gasoske
Set Designer: Zac Cary
Costumer: Colene Fornachon
Lighting Designer: Nathan Schroeder
Sound Designer: Kareem Deanes
Props Designer: Katie Orr
Master Carpenter: Andrew Cary
Light and Sound Board Operator: Stuart Safranski
Run Crew: Nikki Pilato
Cover Design: Marjorie Williamson
Publicity Photos/Video: Julie Merkle
Publicity: Mark Abels
Program Design: Nathan Schroeder