“1 2 3, what are we fighting for?” is the famous song lyric that opens Shirley Lauro’s A Piece of My Heart. “Next stop is Vietnam” is the destination for six American Women in this moving and poignant drama.
Academic and aspiring teacher Whitney, working for the American Red Cross, intelligence officer Steele, nurses Sissy and Martha (an ‘army brat’ wanting to follow in her parents’ footsteps) and hippie Leeann form the core cast from across American society. Standing out though, with her red hair, guitar and Texas drawl is Maryjo, a touring singer booked to entertain the troops.
The cast form an airliner isle (the stage is cleverly utilised in all scenes throughout) to fly to Vietnam. On arrival, ‘all-American girl’ Whitney and ‘Miss New York’ Leeann are whisked to their respective roles, with the latter shocked she hasn’t been given the promised posting in Hawaii.
The female leading roles are ably supported by a group of actors who flit from role-to-role, one minute young Marines whooping at Maryjo’s performance, the next injured casualties as the reality of war hits (the nurses find a foot in a severed boot bringing home the horror of the conflict).
Throughout, as the other women are steadily indoctrinated, from dates becoming abusive under the influence of drink to the dilemma over whether to save a Viet Cong prisoner of war, Maryjo’s music stands her above the fray. This changes towards the end of the first part though when she reveals her rape at the hand of six GIs. Both parties are so brutalised by the conflict that she pays the attack little regard.
The play takes the theme of women in conflict further where Steele’s feelings of inequality are vindicated when her intelligence report on the 1968 Tet Offensive is dismissed by her superiors. On return to the US, she is sent to her previous desk job.
From being harassed in a ‘Hey Hey LBJ’ protest and struggling with the everyday experiences of shopping and socialising, the six reunite some years later to form a therapy group.
“We were never married but it sure feels like we got divorced” one says. Such is the severity of their difficulties from alcoholism to relationship breakups.
The finale movingly projects the black stone names that comprise the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D C onto the wall as the six pay their tributes and receive the thanks of those they cared for, concluding a deeply poignant performance of how ‘a few good women left their hearts in Vietnam’.
A Piece of My Heart is on at the New Wimbledon Theatre until Saturday 20 October.