Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A Piece of My Heart at Dukesbay Theater

Jermaine Lindsay playing all the American men, and Sissy (Erin O'Laughlin, all photos courtesy Dukesbay Theater

LeeAnn (Helen Martin) and Steele (LaNita Hudson),

A Piece of My Heart at Dukesbay Theater is the real deal. It is the horror and the heroism of the Vietnam War brought to life, not with action and special effects but through the troubled memories of six women who lived through it — true stories mostly told by those who remember, but also acted out to the background of rock and roll. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, the songs that reverberate in our ears and in our memory along with the sound of helicopter blades.
Martha (Kathryn Grace Philbrook), Whitney (Jill Heinecke) and Steele

MaryJo (Melanie Gladstone), Martha and Steele
The play was written by Shirley Lauro based on a 1986 oral history by Keith Walker in which 26 of the estimated 1,500 American women who went to Southeast Asia recounted their experiences, whether as nurses, civilian do-gooders or entertainers. The women of A Piece of My Heart are Army, Navy and Red Cross nurses, an intelligence officer, and a singer/guitarist from an all-girl band who was sent to Vietnam to entertain the troops. They are: Martha (Kathryn Grace Philbrook), an idealistic military brat who follows in her parents’ footsteps by becoming an Army nurse; MaryJo (Melanie Gladstone), the lead singer in Sugar Candies from Beaumont, Texas; Sissy (Erin O’Loughlin), an idealistic but fearful Army nurse; Whitney (Jill Heinecke), a Red Cross nurse; LeeAnn (Helen Martin), an Asian-American hippie who becomes an Army nurse thinking she’s going to get to serve in Hawaii; and Steele (LaNita Hudson), an Army veteran of 18 years who joined wanting to be in the Army band but was told Negroes couldn’t be in the band. She works in intelligence and is probably the smartest and most accomplished of all the women.
The one man in the cast, Jermaine Lindsay, plays all the American men, from hard-partying soldiers to double amputees in the field hospital to a succession of officious officers.
Vietnam is a shock to all the women, and coming home (the entire second act takes place back home) is just as big a shock. All but Steele are young and naïve when they go to ’Nam. They are horrified by the conditions and by the severity of the wounds they must treat. They are forced to grow up in a hurry, and when they come home they no longer fit in with their old friends or their families. Every one of them suffers from post-traumatic stress.
It is a horrible and destressing story, but thankfully it ends on an uplifting note.
About that ending — it takes place at the wall in Washington, D.C., long after the women come home, and it plays on the audience’s emotions in a way that a more cynical reviewer would probably dismiss, but I am a sucker for just that kind of play to the heartstrings as, it seems, most of the opening night audience was.
The acting by the ensemble cast is outstanding. The pacing and blocking is like a carefully choreographed dance throughout. And the set designed by Burton Yuen is a simple grouping of risers and a long ramp that is perfect for this presentation. The only problem with the set is that occasionally actors speak from spots that are hard to see, depending on where you are seated.
Finally, the rock ‘n’ roll sound track (a combination of recorded and live music) is the music not only of the era, but specifically of the Vietnam War — a combat veteran friend of mine said ‘Nam was America’s rock ‘n’ roll war.
Opening night sold out, so get your tickets early.
A Piece of My Heart, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 2 p.m., Sunday through Nov. 13, $15, Dukesbay Theater, Merlino Arts Center, 508 S. Sixth Ave., Tacoma, online tickets at

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