The vast body of literature and theater about war and its aftermath through the ages usually presents it from the male viewpoint: Henry V, All Quiet on the Western Front, Best Years of Our Lives, Fields of Fire, Stalag 17, The Red Badge of Courage, to name just a few.
Shirley Lauro’s play, first produced on Broadway in 1991, emphatically breaks that mold. Based on a 1986 oral history by Keith Walker, the play has the personal narratives of six women who served in Vietnam: three nurses, a Red Cross worker, an intelligence warrant officer, and a guitar-playing singer sent to entertain the troops. The cast is rounded out by one man who plays all the male characters in the play.
The first act opens by introducing the characters and revealing the various motives and ambitions that led them into the military and took them to Vietnam. They are well-trained for their jobs, but not prepared for the horrors of battle, the dangers of misplaced trust, or the blatant disregard and sexism shown by their commanding officers. The rest of the first act covers their experiences in Vietnam, mostly horrific and remarkably unsettling, but interspersed with some lighter moments and even singing.
The second act brings them back home, and it is not a pretty sight. All of them have great personal uncertainties about the war and what happened to them in it. They range from rage to deep depression. Many of these thoughts are expressed as they participate in therapy sessions with one another. While they certainly never return to the kind of life they led before going to Vietnam, they do move on to lead productive lives. But it takes a while.
The play closes with them reuniting at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall reminiscing about their time in Vietnam and remembering those men whose names were on the wall. This was before their own participation in the war was recognized by a women’s memorial that now looks across the plaza to the wall.
This is an intense play that you must be prepared for. It is not an anti-war play in the sense that it delves into the politics of the war. It shows that war in general is vastly destructive – both morally and physically. Even so, we keep going to war. It is part of the human psyche, I guess.
The American Century Theater is an Arlington-based company that is “dedicated to presenting great, important, and worthy American plays of the twentieth century – what Henry Luce called ‘the American Century.'” Future productions of the 2009 – 2010 season will include Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, Stalag 17, The Amazing Sophie, Babes in Arms, and Serenading Louie. Information about the season can be found on the company’s web page: www.americancentury.org. A Piece of My Heart will play through October 10 at the Gunston Arts Center’s Theatre II. See it!