By Tom Titus
FEBRUARY 9, 2017, 2:55 PM
Standing ovations are rare in community theater, but the one delivered to the cast of "A Piece of My Heart" at the Costa Mesa Playhouse after Saturday's opening performance was, most certainly, justified.
Shirley Lauro's emotional tribute to the women who served as nurses in the Vietnam war – and the bitterness they faced afterward – is brilliantly related by director Kathy Paladino and a true all-star cast. The half-dozen actresses who relate incidents from the conflict and its aftermath are uniformly outstanding.
"A Piece of My Heart" resurrects a period of American history that most of us either have forgotten or were born too late to experience – the horrors of Vietnam and their effects on those who came through it apparently unscathed. As a theatrical piece, it offers exceptional opportunity for all six principals to render compelling performances, as they do on the Costa Mesa stage.
In this true ensemble exercise, the women take turns grasping pieces of our own hearts as they relate their life-changing experiences. The first act comprises their Vietnam service; the second focuses on their frustrations upon returning home. Only the final scene, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., finally offers an emotional uplift.
The tightly bound cast consists of Martha (Kim Sava), a professional nurse frustrated by military regulations; Sissy (Hannah Suria), agonizing that she was sent to Southeast Asia rather than a more familiar Hawaii; Whitney (Shannon Dodson), beautiful and well educated but out of her depth; LeeAnn (Katie May Porter), sustained by her religious beliefs; Steele (Angela D. Watson), on a career course in the military; and Mary Jo (Caitlin Fuller), not a nurse but a USO entertainer with a killer set of vocal cords.
The story is told in episodic form, focusing on vignettes from each woman's service. One such telling point is Steele's researched premonition of the Chinese participation in the Tet offensive – which is brushed aside by the Army brass. It's curious that the African-American character is the only one billed by her last name, Steele.
The men who fought the war are distilled into one actor, Hans Kelsen, who plays them admirably. He and Sarah Rohrer provide musical accompaniment (including popular anti-war songs) not specified in the script but added, quite effectively, by director Paladino.
Those seeking theatrical fulfillment typically found only at South Coast Repertory should take a piece of their heart to "A Piece of My Heart" at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
TOM TITUS reviews local theater.
If You Go
What: "A Piece of My Heart"
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 26
Cost: $18 to $22
Information: (949) 650-5269 or http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com