“A Piece of My Heart” at the Barrow Mansion in Jersey City, NJ (Closed Sunday June 1, 2014)

May 26, 2014 | New Jersey | Tags:
By Shirley Lauro
Directed by Betsy Aiello Sanders
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Suggested by a work by Keith Walker, Shirley Lauro’s 1991 “A Piece of My Heart” attempts to celebrate the lives of the women who served in the Vietnam War as enlisted soldiers, nurses, entertainers, and other volunteers. Under director Betsy Aiello Sanders’ steady hand, the talented ensemble cast of the Speranza Theatre Company tackles Ms. Lauro’s script and brings it to life with heartfelt energy and a high dose of authenticity. Speranza is Jersey City, NJ’s newest theatre company staging performances of “A Piece of My Heart” at the historic Barrow Mansion in downtown Jersey City.

Ms. Lauro’s intensely presentational drama follows the journeys of five American women who are deployed to serve in or volunteer to serve in Vietnam during that iconic and troubled war. From their pre-service exposition through to their return to their homes, these women experience the very highs and the very lows of serving during the Vietnam War. Although they all travel to Vietnam for a variety of motives, the one thing that seems to connect their journeys is their sincere desire to “make a difference” and somehow “save the world.”

Army brat Martha (Diana Cherkas), Texan MaryJo Kinkaid (Natalie Pavelek) – lead singer and rhythm guitarist in Sugar Candies All Girl Band, idealist Sissy (Heather Wahl), Whitney (Danielle M. Treuberg), Leeann (Kathleen Choe), and seasoned soldier Steele (Jennean Farmer) learn quickly that Vietnam is not the safe place their recruiters, senior officers, or agents promised and they learn that very few of their expectations about “saving the world” are realistic or even achievable. They navigate hypocrisy, incompetence, and arrogance in addition to confronting daily the horrors of battlefield war in an unfamiliar and hostile environment.

Jason Faust handily and skillfully portrays all of the “American Men” the women encounter from male entertainment agents and non-responsive top brass to the soldiers who find themselves in the care of a handful of frightened, dedicated, and confused women. There are many unseen men in the play as well, including those who rape singer MaryJo after a USO performance. References to the Bob Hope USO show and to the January 1968 Tet Offensive bring a level of authenticity to the play’s story line.

Each member of the ensemble cast portrays her and his own character as well as a variety of stock characters with commendable craft. Because of the presentational nature of the script, it is sometimes difficult to connect with the characters as deeply as an audience member might prefer; however, that is not a comment on the cast’s abilities as much as it is a comment on the limitations of the script. Ms. Lauro’s piece lacks the intensity of Mr. Walker’s 1986 oral history; however, each of their dynamic characters experiences joy, sorrow, regret, renewal, and catharsis and Speranza’s cast brings all of these emotions to a level of honesty and clarity.