Arts & Culture

Review: Dukesbay Theater revisits Vietnam with sincerity in ‘A Piece of My Heart’

Helen Martin, left, as LeeAnn and LaNita Hudson, here playing LeeAnn’s superior, in “A Piece of My Heart” at Dukesbay Theater.
Helen Martin, left, as LeeAnn and LaNita Hudson, here playing LeeAnn’s superior, in “A Piece of My Heart” at Dukesbay Theater. Dukesbay Theatre

I’ll say this right out: I had no experience of Vietnam (too young) and am not even an American. Yet the Vietnam War impacted — and still impacts — most of the world, and a play about that war now at Tacoma’s Dukesbay Theater will impact everyone in the audience, regardless of their experience. But while “A Piece of My Heart” has moments of sheer, breathtaking emotion, its structure and script sometimes fall short.

The strength of this production is in the acting and directing. As a tale of the Vietnam War told through the eyes of six women who served, it lives or dies by those six women, and Dukesbay’s cast does a mostly stellar job.

Kathryn Philbrook is utterly convincing as Martha, an Army brat who feels called to serve as a Navy nurse and discovers the dark underbelly of the military experience. As she powerfully brings the hospital ward scenes to life, we see through her eyes the pain and despair, and its later, internal effect on her. LaNita Hudson brings a smart, hard edge to Steele, the intelligence specialist disbelieved by her white male superiors. Jill Heinecke is uptight yet vulnerable as the Red Cross volunteer Whitney. Melanie Gladstone offers a sweet singing voice and sweeter nature as the Texan entertainer MaryJo. Erin O’Loughlin as the naïve Sissy and Helen Martin as the freewheeling East Coast hippie, both Army nurses, are more self-conscious, though sincere.

As every American soldier, officer and passerby in the plot, Jermaine Lindsay is solid, though unsubtle.

Randy Clark, directing this sequence of monologues around an evocative, wood-plank set by Burton Yuen, does a great job of balancing swift action and haunted reflection, as the women travel from eager sign-up to horrified shock to exhilaration, back to shock and finally to the long, bitter process of rebuilding their lives and sanity back home.

But “A Piece of My Heart,” written in 1991 by Shirley Lauro, has its weaknesses. It’s very much of its time, with some outdated sexism and rah-rah spirit that are hard to render today with conviction. Its very structure (six ongoing monologues, with some rare dialogue) means we never feel for any one character or care much about her development. And with a less-than-brilliant script, it can also feel stilted, the war re-creation scenes sometimes terrifying, sometimes just awkward.

The most powerful aspect about this play is twofold. It gives dramatic equality to actors of all ethnicities, and it brings the issues and aftermath of war front and center. Whether you’re a veteran or a youngster, American or not, “A Piece of My Heart” will make you think hard about what you hold dear and the price we are all still paying for what America chose to do in Vietnam.

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti

A Piece of My Heart by Shirley Lauro

Where: Dukesbay Theater, Merlino Building, 508 Sixth Ave., Tacoma. Note: The theater is up two flights of stairs.

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 13.

Tickets: $15, includes coffee, tea and cookies.

Information: 253-267-0869, dukesbay.org.

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