By Mike Martin
FEBRUARY 9, 2017
Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Vietnam War was bad. If you agree with that statement or have consumed any sort of media about that conflict, then A Piece of My Heart has very few surprises in store. We've all read this book, watched this movie, and even seen this play before under a hundred other names. It not that it isn't moving, well-written, or even true... But things like this are hard to get excited for anymore these days.
Which is why this production actually turned into something of a pleasant surprise. It wasn't the material (sometimes well-written but often trite) or the direction (which was hit and miss), but the performances that make this production not only palatable but quite enjoyable. The seven women and one man who make up this ensemble are roundly quite good and genuine; putting a new shine on a tired concept.
Don't get me wrong. I said tired CONCEPT. Not tired subject. Vietnam was a scarring piece of our national fabric that defined a generation. No argument from me there. However, Just about everything ever produced about it is strikingly similar tonally. This play is no different except that it adds in a dose of smarmy cliche in its dialogue make you wonder what the show is trying to say on occasion.
So hooray for the kind of actors who can elevate something ultimately predictable and overly drawn out into an enjoyable evening of theater. All turn in strong performances, but a few do stand out:
Shannon Dodson takes what could be the most brazenly silly character, Whitney; and paints a quiet, understated, and surprising nuanced portrait. As written, Whitney is constantly in a state of almost laughable confusion about the war (a trait the author sprinkles liberally around) and/or searching for a man to latch on to (empowerment...?). Dodson gives us REASON for this behavior and we see her evolve and come out the other side changed.
Katie May Porter as LeeAnn is another good example of an actor succeeding in spite of the limitations of the script. In this show, as in many others of its' type – has an obligatory freak out for each actor. While most see this as an opportunity to really start chewing on some scenery; the smart actor enhances their impact by holding back. Porter could have gone far more over the top but chose to fight the tears. This is all the more commendable when the show itself is doing its level best to bum the audience out. Empathy has its limits, and if everyone loses it at every opportunity we have no where to go.
In the role of Steele, Angela D. Watson turns in perhaps my favorite performance. Her arc softens as the play moves on; and here we see a character that is written with some competence and agency. The author Shirley Lauro does somewhat over-correct her pattern of making all the other women in the show damsels-in-distress... and Steele does at times come of as a bit of a Cassandra; but Watson finds a middle ground and stays there comfortably throughout the show. Toward the end of the show, she snaps a salute that did more to bring a tear to my eye than any hackneyed histrionics we'd seen prior.
Finally special mention should be made of Hans Kelsen who has the rather thankless job of playing "The American Men." He brings a great warmth to the stage no matter how small the individual scene and I would love to see him again in something that has a bit more meat to chew on.
In terms of direction, Kathy Paladino hits just about all of the right touches. Because of the nature of the piece, we get a LOT of monologues. Paladino keeps the blocking moving and the show from getting stale in many respects. It's always difficult to guess at what the rehearsal process is like; but if she had a hand in bringing these nuanced performances out of her actors then she certainly deserves kudos for that as well.
One area where the show seems to get in its' own way is with the added live music. Obviously music can add a great deal in certain circumstances... but here it seems a bit of a tacked on mess. The music chosen was cliche, often its timing was odd, and the singers themselves tended to be as often pitchy as not. In one face-palming and extremely on-the-nose moment. The character Marge gives us the titular line of the show then the guitar duo launch into a rather noisy and flat Janice Joplin song. Can you guess the title? Of course you can. This is already a lengthy piece, adding more filler just doesn't do the trick here.
Technically the show is competent and occasionally innovative despite some early audio hiccups; with the lighting design by Ryan Lindhardt standing out strongest.
In all, A Piece of My Heart is a qualified success. It wont be winning any awards for bringing the audience a fresh perspective on women, war, or politics... but it does stand strong on the shoulders of the fine actors involved.