A Piece of My Heart follows the women beginning with their decisions to join the war effort, four as nurses, but not all thought they would actually do so in Vietnam and that sets up a sense of betrayal by the authorities who sent them there that just grows over time. Martha (Viki Lovelace) is a Navy nurse. Mary Jo (Margeaux Fanning) is a singer who signs up to go to Vietnam with her band to entertain the troops. Sissy (Lisa Davis) is from a small town and sees nursing as the best job she can get to escape a suffocating upbringing. Whitney (Anysia Manthos) has graduated from Wellesley College and enters the American Red Cross as a nurse, seeing it as her chance to go out and explore the world before returning to her privileged enclave in New England. Leeann (Maria Christina Bucalan) hopes to be assigned to a base in Hawaii but finds herself in southeast Asia. Steele (Gina Montana) is an older career military soldier from Mississippi who works in intelligence. All men in the play are handled by Brian Collins.
Whatever illusions the women have of a heroic calling or even a basically functional hospital situation are quickly dashed when they arrive, some in transport planes that come under fire. The small stage and intimate arrangements at Actor's Theatre amplify the chaos of simple effects like flashing lights, the commotion of rushing about in tight quarters, and the way the rapid-fire sequence of monologues and vignettes fill in the horrid accounts of the young nurses suddenly receiving casualties in medical camps set up very close to the front lines. If any of that sounds like the set of M*A*S*H, it's a world apart because this play is not looking for punch lines. When Walker wrote his book in the early '80s, many of the women interviewed resisted talking at first and were afraid of any possible public backlash.
The gore and indiscriminate nature of the industry of war are usually told from a soldier's point of view, by people voluntarily or involuntarily thrust into a kill-or-be-killed situation. Seeing war from the point of view of nurses, people asked to heal or just comfort the horribly wounded, makes their plight seem almost insurmountable. It's a window into the suffering generated by feelings of abandonment and betrayal that marked the war, shared by soldiers and nurses alike, whether it came from indifferent or distant military bureaucracy, war protestors or the way in which veterans were abandoned after the war by the Veterans Administration, which offers ominous echoes of the recent Walter Reed scandal of returning troops being denied adequate care.
The most vivid scenes concern amputees and the most disfiguring of injuries. Becoming accustomed to treating these sorts of catastrophic wounds is a painful initiation for the nurses, most of whom were barely into their early twenties and in no way trained for combat medicine. It's extremely demanding material for the cast to reproduce the emotional tumult of such memories. There are many gripping moments as Martha is haunted by the scrolling pages of patient numbers waiting to be treated in order of seriousness of wounds. Sissy is torn between treating a man or just holding his hand as his life slips away. Leeann flies into a rage when ordered to treat a Viet Cong soldier whose five American victims lie dead next to him. There are also compelling moments of earnest disbelief from Steele, a black woman from Mississippi who at times can't tell whether she is up against racism, sexism, military inefficiency or all three at the same time.
The toll on surviving is high. The Christmas in Vietnam scenes illustrate how different life in a war zone is and also how important that link to normalcy is to the people who serve. The women quickly find themselves shedding common gender roles that typified their previous lives. Some drink heavily to escape, and some seek drugs as well.
The second act has the women returning home and struggling to adjust. Hospital bureaucracies don't appreciate the real world experience they have had. War protestors hurl abuse at the sight of their uniforms. Their families don't understand the trauma. Whitney falls into alcoholism. Sissy has tumors removed and a child with birth defects and is thwarted in seeking treatment by doctors who see no link to Agent Orange. Maryjo finds herself seeking emotional comfort from Vets with war experience but often finds the relationships stuck in silent parallel suffering.
Long after the shooting stops, they all continue to fight for peace in their lives, which diverge as they each seek it through different paths. After helping so many soldiers, they have to heal themselves in other ways. Most did it out of uniform and in somewhat isolated situations. In spite of the difficulty of their experiences, A Piece of My Heart finds the heroism in that personal journey as well.