There was a miracle at The Woodlands High School last Friday night, and I am here to bear witness to that fact. The event was a preview performance of “A Piece of My Heart” by WHS student performers who have been selected from entrants around the world to perform the play at this week’s International Thespian Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. This production of the brilliant Shirley Lauro play is a monumental masterpiece of ensemble craftsmanship from director Sandra Erlandson and the young cast and crew in her charge. It is nothing short of miraculous, and I would not be at all surprised if they win the international competition.
Through the magic of Nevin Ryan’s massive and versatile set design, the play opens in dramatic tableau at Washington’s Vietnam War Memorial, but quickly goes to flashback for the experiences of six young women who went to Vietnam during the war. In rapid succession, whether nurses, entertainers, red cross workers, or intelligence officers, we see their moments of decision to go to Vietnam, their experiences in training, and their shipping-out to the brutal realities of “’Nam.” A large and talented supporting cast escorts them on this epic and touching journey. But above all, in the lead roles, we have the stunning performances of Devin Preston, Lindsay Ashworth, Fabian Harford, Alyssum Hutson, Ruibo Quian, and Stacy Salvette. Each of them brings a depth of emotion and realism to the work that could rival the efforts of the most seasoned actress. To see this in a high school production was truly remarkable.
With the Technical Direction of Carlen Gilseth, and the Lighting and Sound Designs of Larry Wood (with Robert Gray, Stephanie Kinch and Robert Rinderknecht), we are realistically transported into the explosive and chaotic violence that so characterized this divisive war. Combinations of on-stage action and large screen video “windows” propel us into jet landings, helicopters hovering and battlefield action. The highly effective sound and light of bombs, artillery, mine explosions etc., are as close to a war zone as I ever care to come. Even a critic’s complaint that this din occasionally drowns out the dialogue seems inappropriate as it surely depicted another reality of war. The costumes of designer Elizabeth Motherwell consistently reinforce this realism, and from the boot camp drills to complex battle scenes like the Tet Offensive, one senses a great choreographer is at work.
The chaotic horror of the battle zone hospital wards, with dismembered and maimed soldiers, the dead and the dying, is graphically portrayed and will not soon be forgotten. We hear terrified and frantic nurses with lines like “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life,” and “No matter what we’re going through, the guys have got it worse!” An officer cautions them to each build her own mental wall. “Don’t think! Stay behind your wall!” In a particularly moving segment, five nurses minister in counterpoint to five dying “Jimmys” across the stage. It is a highlight of the play, and a fitting tribute to the countless “Jimmys” that were lost.
Suddenly the dismal atmosphere is lifted by a hymn that casts a spell of hope. There is a lively Christmas scene with holiday caroling to bring some joy. But joy is quickly forgotten as the close relationships these young women build with servicemen are shattered through casualties or Missing in Action reports. More chaos ensues with Viet Cong betrayals that are hauntingly described to the pounding beat of Vietnamese rhythm sticks. And still further chaos is demonstrated in “pass the buck” decisions being made by the military high command.
In her role as USO entertainer Mary Jo, lead singer of “The Sugar Candies,” Miss Ashworth beautifully performs many of the show’s period songs. The large cast provides superb choral support for such tunes as “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Blowin’In the Wind,” and a plaintive “This Old Man” from war-weary soldiers who seem to seek the lost innocence of long-ago childhood. Troubled for years by the sometimes very “hard edge” of rock and roll, I found the frenzied war zone disco scenes, with their attendant drugs, alcohol and desperate sex, to be a revelation of a time in our history that hatched out a part of our culture that is problematic to this day. Could it be that this war is not yet over? Clearly, that is the insightful author’s message; and it is brought home with great power in this astonishing production.
In Act II the women return to the States and discover the difficulties of re-integrating themselves in an unrecognizable nation now torn apart by anti-war protests. We see the military “processing out,” the family reunions, and the political rejection from those opposed to the war. Media representations of the war infuriate these veterans: “We’re talking about people here, not baseball scores!” The Johnson White House is under siege with refrains like “Hey, Hey, LBJ! How many kids did you kill today?” Alcohol, drugs, and “free-love” abound, but seem to bring no joy to these women or their troubled world. They encounter Agent Orange Disease, lingering injuries, rejection, nightmares, and group therapy. Bit by bit, they piece their lives back together before the climactic scene when they re-unite in the crowd assembled for the dedication of “The Wall” in Washington, D.C. The 21-gun salute sends a shudder through me as I think of my late brother-in-law, John Lawrence, who served so valiantly in Vietnam, and was lucky enough to come home and raise a family. The scene is a stunning culmination as the wall illuminates with the names of those who died in action. We hear the music of John Lennon’s “Imagine” as candles flicker throughout the crowd. The ghosts of all those lost are rising in the haunting mist of this production. The miracle has ended, but the memory lingers on.
(The Courier 6.28.00)
(The Villager 7.5.00)