Monday, September 11, 2017

Margin Notes: A Piece of My Heart

Poster design by Rachel Ely.

Seen on: Friday, 9/7/17.
My grade: A

Plot and Background
Shirley Lauro's play, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Keith Walker, follows six women from different backgrounds who journey to Vietnam during the war - as soldiers, as nurses, as performers - and examines the toll it takes on them, both during and after the conflict.

Disclosure, and
What I Knew Beforehand
I'm vaguely sure I'd seen a ten minute cutting from this play in speech and debate tournaments in high school, so I knew loosely that it was about nurses in the Vietnam War. Disclosure: I am friends with director Reesa Graham (we met when I reviewed another show she directed, May Violets Spring).


Play: It's easy to think that going to a play about a war over forty years past might feel stale or dated. What's remarkable about this production is how immediately urgent it feels, how presently now each moment is - and how desolating it is to realize how little some things have changed in the ensuing decades. My main exposure to the Vietnam narrative has been history classes, a few films, and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Those stories are about the men in combat. The stories here are about the women in a combat zone. They're not getting blasted with grenades, but it's their job to try desperately to repair what's left of the men who are. Director Reesa Graham conducts this symphony of the unsung women - a blending of six women's stories (with help from one All American Man) through words, song, the stamping of feet, the biting clack of the banging of sticks, the stillness of silence - with grace and subtlety. The text of the play is powerful in its own right, without adornment, and Graham doesn't try to gussy it up - she lets the play speak honestly, lets the characters be frank - open and vulnerable, hardened and hurt. These women have been forgotten and ignored. Here they have their space, to remember, to be, and - hopefully - to heal. A Piece of My Heart isn't an easy play to watch - but it is an essential play to witness.

Cast: When an ensemble works together so well, shares the space so generously, and moves and speaks with full trust of the support of every player, it's quite beautiful to watch. Part of the strength of this production is the melding of these disparate stories into a shared experience, and that wouldn't work if all performers weren't as excellent as they are. Samantha Aneson brings a sweetness that masks inner strength to the singer MaryJo, one which is never quite crushed, even when her romantic imaginings are dashed by the cruelty of men. Reese Antoinette's Steele burns with a righteous fury as her warnings and reports are dismissed, the fire in her eyes blazing even as she maintains military composure. As hippie-turned-nurse LeAnn, Sue Kim finds both the whimsical joy and the heartstopping rage at a world turned upside down. Marlowe Holden brings an appealing and straightforward crispness to Red Cross nurse Whitney, contrasting first with the naive casualness of her colleagues, and later with the desolate indifference she meets after the war. Randa Karambelas's kind and earnest Sissy must learn to be steel and strength when she attempts to build a life post-war, and finds herself and her child falling mysteriously ill. As Martha, Chelsea J. Smith shines with ambition and eagerness, made all the more wrenching when she falls into depression back in the States. As the All American Man, Danny Grumich brings alternately charm, gruffness, seediness, coarseness, and deliberate indifference, and carries off his various personalities with an ease that can make one forget how many characters he's juggling.

Design: Jeff Modereger's set is deceptively simple - a raked platform covered with black cloth, backed by a haphazard bamboo fence. The rumpled fabric of the floor serves to underscore just how uncertain the ground is beneath the characters, both at war and at peace; the fence wall, evoking a cage which partly remains even when the women return home, asks whether this is a cage keeping the evil at bay, or keeping the women trapped forever with these memories. And the ultimate reveal of the set - which I won't spoil here - leaves the audience gasping, and gives us a final poignant image as the play concludes. Somie Pak's costumes are effective and unadorned, giving us small character glimpses - both in how the women wear their uniforms, and in how they attempt to return to citizenry. The score of the show, as designed by Megan Culley, is quite powerful: a mix of prerecorded sound, mostly of externals like gunfire and planes flying, of an overhead mic for announcements, of guitar and song performed by actor Samantha Aneson, and by the striking of claves (wooden percussion sticks) by the actors to indicate changes, heightened heartbeats, the ticking of a clock. Timothy Parrish's lighting design is clear and unobtrusive, even with the difficult thrust staging, with audience on three sides of the space.


Running: Now playing at IATI Theater (Little Spoon, Big Spoon Productions) - Opening: September 8, 2017. Closing: September 30, 2017.
Category: straight play
Length: 2 hours, 10 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Playwright: Shirley Lauro, based on the book by Keith Walker
Director: Reesa Graham
Designers:  Jeff Modereger (Set), Somie Pak (Costume), Timothy Parrish (Lighting), Megan Culley (Sound),  Rachel Ely (Dramaturg).
Cast: Samantha Aneson, Reese Antoinette, Sue Kim, Danny Grumich, Marlowe Holden, Randa Karambelas, Chelsea J. Smith.

Chelsea J. Smith, Sue Kim, Reese Antoinette, and Randa Karambelas. 
Photo by David Fletcher.

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