By Sarah Downs

I had one of those great New York theater experiences on Thursday, where you walk into a small theater off the beaten path, sit down, and something wonderful and magical happens.  In A Piece of My Heart an ensemble of six exceptional actresses have, under the direction of Reesa Graham, brought to life the egregiously overlooked history of the nearly 11,000 American women who went overseas as nurses, Red Cross workers, entertainers and more in the dreadful years of the Vietnam War.  Drawn from the lives of real women, this play traces the experience of 6 women who took the long journey to Vietnam, from bright-eyed anticipation to hollow return.

The actresses inhabit their roles effortlessly, each a portrait of unique experience from very different social backgrounds.  Marlowe Holden as Whitney, the pretty, self-assured Vassar graduate is luminous in a grounded performance that creates a poignant fulcrum for the madness that surrounds her.  Sue Kim is the cheerful hippie LeAnn, sparkling with a kind of child-like innocence that veils a powerful woman underneath.  She has signed up with her friend, Sissy, a warm, light-hearted girl dead set on getting out of Eerie, Pennsylvania, in search of adventure.  In this role Randa Karambelas gives a heartbreaking performance that runs the gamut from ‘you betcha’ to utter despair.  Willowy Chelsea J. Smith is lovely as the fresh faced army brat Martha, following in her family’s tradition, sure of herself and her expertise as head nurse.  What Martha finds in Vietnam launches her into a spiral that would have overwhelmed a lesser actress.  And there’s Samantha Aneson as MaryJo, the ever smiling USO entertainer in her go-go boots and miniskirt, singing and strumming her guitar for the soldiers.  Aneson gives a deceptively breezy performance.  She has a lovely voice and a tenderness that brings a velvet texture to the narrative.  Her suffering is all the more poignant therefor.  Sixth in this ensemble is the aptly named Steele, a confident, career army officer.  Steele knows what she is about, determined to rise in the ranks despite the double whammy of being both a woman and black.  Alas, she is fighting a losing battle with bias and small minds.  Reese Antoinette in this role is deliciously efficient, humorous and deeply emotional.

There is one man in the cast – a versatile Danny Grumich.  In the nameless role of “The American Men” Grumich plays all of the male characters, from battlefield soldier to state-side civilian.  In addition to the structural importance of having one man play these various roles, to keep the focus firmly on the women’s stories, The American Men’s solitary incarnation resonates on a deeper level.  As these women comforted soldier after soldier in a blur of activity, as pieces of each woman’s heart split off with every death, the soldiers’ faces blended together.  One man became every man, and every man was that one man.

Reesa Graham’s direction deftly combines nuance with attack, wrestling with tough material from a deeply personal perspective.  This play throws you back in your seat.  It is intense — how could it be otherwise?  These women worked under harrowing conditions, enduring shelling and gunfire as they worked treating the wounded or comforting exhausted soldiers.  As the characters trace a dizzying path across stage in the steady build of the action, you feel the war.  Jeff Modereger has designed a deceptively simple set which evokes Vietnam with an abstract bamboo frame and canvas floor covering.  The sound and lighting effects to evoke scenes of battle are effective to the point of near exhaustion with unencumbered silence our reward.

A Piece of My Heart is a cathartic and deeply moving piece of writing.  At the end of the evening, after applauding enthusiastically, the audience exited the theater in silence.  What could words possibly suffice, other than those of the women whose lives have been hidden from us for these many decades.  Shirley Lauro has given these overlooked heroes a voice and we are privileged to listen.

A Piece of My Heart, by Shirley Lauro, inspired by the book by Keith Walker, directed by Reesa Graham, presented by Little Spoon Big Spoon; featuring Chelsea J. Smith, Danny Grumich, Marlowe Holden, Randa Karambelas, Reese Antoinette, Samantha Aneson and Sue Kim.  Jeff Modereger, set design; Somie Pak, costumes; Timothy Parrish, lighting; Megan Culley, sound design; Rachel Ely, dramaturg; Ashton Kamphuis, production stage manager.

At the IATI Theater, 64 East 4th St., September 8th – 30th.  See lsbs website for complete schedule.  Tickets available here; 20% of all ticket sales will go to support Hope for the Warriors.  Runtime approximately 2 1/2 hours with 15 minute intermission.