The memories of women who survived the Vietnam War are brought vividly to life in Shirley Lauro's 1991 play A Piece of my Heart suggested by the book by Keith Walker, performed by Elgin Theatre Company Saturday night at the Elgin Art Showcase.
Written in documentary fashion, consisting of scenic vignettes divided up by monologues and music, Piece is a scrapbook of situations experienced by a collage of characters that suggest the range of capacities in which women served in the war: nurses, relief workers, entertainers and soldiers. Every woman had a distinct personal story, and many volunteered as a means of escaping the social constraints of pre-feminist, mid-century America. Once they arrive "in country," however, the alternating horror and monotony of daily experience drives them to escape to booze, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Rather than develop each individual character in the cast of seven, the play often uses them interchangeably to stand in for generic people and voices of The War. In fact, the only male role is simply that of "The American Men," played by Mark Brewer. As "Leann" (Angel Novie) puts it when she arrives in Vietnam, "I'm not special. Everybody's here."
During the long first act, the characters become exhausted by the relentless assault on their senses, their ethics and their identities, and feel their humanity slipping away as routinely as the soldiers lose their limbs. When they escape the war to return home in Act Two, they find themselves wounded, once again in a country that seems entirely foreign to them.
A great script becomes an amazing production when the set, the action, and the sound and lighting tell the story as eloquently as the words. Superb interpretation by director Madeline Franklin presents the non-linear material as it should be envisioned: with an abstract set, symbolic costumes and minimal props.
In roles that border on "performance art," the cast gave inspired performances, shifting smoothly in and out of multiple characterizations, going from panic to intoxication, breaking into song, resetting the stage, never missing a cue or an entrance. Libby Einterz ("Martha") and Elizabeth Dawson ("Whitney") rose above the script in delivering key lines that may have been overwritten but were not overacted.
Kiara Wolfe ("Sissy"), Jamie McCalister ("MaryJo") and Marixa Ford ("Steele") added to the excellent talent that keeps Elgin Theatre Company still fresh after more than fifty-five seasons on stage. A Piece of my Heart closes with three more shows, Feb. 16th and 17th at 8 p.m. and Feb. 18th at 2 p.m. at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division Street in downtown Elgin. For more information, go to www.elgin-theatre.org.