By Eric Marchese / Contributing Writer
Feb. 8, 2017 Updated 3:30 p.m.
Shirley Lauro's compelling Vietnam War-era play "A Piece of My Heart" debuted at the 1991 Humana Festival, yet it's been overlooked by most Orange County theaters.
Costa Mesa Playhouse's take on this neglected drama paints an accurate picture of one of the most turbulent times in recent American history. Directed by Kathy Paladino in a lean, spare production, it's a must-see for anyone fascinated by the Vietnam War – and, especially, the role of women in that conflict.
Lauro's play follows her six characters – composites of 26 women who told their stories to author Keith Walker – from their first exposure to what they describe as a "hellhole" through their tours of duty and the painful readjustment to life back at home.
The desire to help the war effort, in some cases fueled by idealism, prompts the actions of the women depicted. Among the most green are the doe-eyed Sissy (Hannah Suria); upscale, Vassar-educated Whitney (Shannon Dodson); and half-Italian, half-Chinese New Yorker Lee Ann (Katie May Porter), a hippie who hates the war but needs the bread.
Thrown into the fray as head nurse are Martha (Kim Sava), a self-described "army brat" with medical training and skills but no service record, and musician Mary Jo (Caitlin Fuller), a cheerful Texan who envisions an exciting career as a USO entertainer.
As Act Two follows their struggles to readjust to life at home, the six principals portray various anonymous civilians – doctors, nurses, bureaucrats, family members, protesters. It's their primary roles, though, that impress us most.
Paladino's carefully modulated staging conveys the gritty realities of war and each woman's trials without treading into mawkishness. Lauro's script and Costa Mesa's cast and direction depict the perils of any war-torn region, showing how the six bonded despite being so unalike – and how they strived to kept their humanity.
Of the six, Angela D. Watson stands out as Steele, a tough-minded, fierce, dedicated career military figure with a broad background and an intelligence specialist. But she quickly finds that "the brass" have no interest in the assessments of an officer who's not only a woman, but black.
Dodson's Whitney is a model of efficiency, Mary Jo is notable for Fuller's emotion-filled singing, Porter's Lee Ann evolves from a counterculture advocate to having gained a sense of accomplishment, Sava's Martha shoulders the burdens of a mind-numbingly untenable workload and Suria's Sissy exemplifies kindness unsullied by the horrors of war.
Hans Kelsen adeptly plays all of the script's male roles – dissimilar figures from grunts to top brass, military to civilian, friend or foe to the women entrenched in the war.
Paladino has enhanced the play's themes by adding songs from the Vietnam War era. Music by the Animals, Buffalo Springfield and, of course, Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" is expressively played on guitar and sung by Sarah Rohrer, frequently joined by Kelsen, creating a deeper emotional resonance and adding joy, sorrow and humanity to an extraordinary piece of stagecraft.