War is hell, and that certainly was true with America’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s and 1970s.
Books, films and plays about the era largely focus on the male soldiers’ suffering, leaving the nurses and other female personnel who served languishing in history’s shadows.
Cooperative Performance, a Milwaukee theater troupe, aims to change that with its production of A Piece of My Heart, playwright Shirley Lauro’s stage adaptation of Keith Walker’s oral history of 26 women who served in — and survived — the Vietnam War. The play is being produced in conjunction with Milwaukee American Legion Women’s Post 448 at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center on the city’s lakefront.
Walker’s book made a deep impression on both Lauro and director Abigail Stein.
“I was looking for subject matter with women in lead roles because I was part of the huge women’s movement sweeping the nation then,” said Lauro, 84, from her New York City apartment. “I couldn’t find much. So, I abandoned my search and headed to Florida for vacation.”
“In the airport bookstore, a soft-cover copy (of Walker’s book) caught my eye. I was apolitical, hadn’t voted for years and was in no way interested in what happened to the people involved,” adds Lauro, a Des Moines native who received her master’s from UW-Madison. “But I bought the book and 25 minutes into the flight I was sobbing. By the time I reached Florida, I knew I had found my next play.”
Stein was deeply affected as an adolescent by Lauro’s play.
“I grew up around the Department of Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Unit in Los Angeles, which at the time was being run by my mother,” Stein recalls. “When I was 16, she took me to see a production of this play in an old theater on the VA grounds. I realized that there were women veterans with traumatic stories to tell.”
“I fell in love with the play and have wanted to direct it ever since,” Stein adds.
Lauro’s 1991 play consists of six women characters — nurses, Red Cross workers and USO entertainers — who are composites of women Walker interviewed for the book. They tell their stories to the audience from a spare set, as well as interact with other characters to flesh out the drama.
To some degree, the women act as the “conscience” of a country involved in what many considered an immoral war, Stein says.
“If by conscience, you mean anti-war sentiment and holding people responsible, then yes,” she says. “The women have been through traumatic experiences and by simply telling their stories there is a sense of accountability.”
“I was interested in telling the story of women as women — inexperienced, flesh and blood — who go through terrifying experiences,” Lauro says. “I think the war changed them all, and not for the best.”
‘A cry for help’
Six actresses play the women in the production but, per Lauro’s stage direction, only one actor plays all the male roles.
“In the war zone there was seldom time to form connections with the soldiers they were taking care of, and the ‘man’ represents the revolving door of several men that are coming in and out of the lives of the women as they deal with war and their return home to their regular life,” Stein says.
“By having the one actor play all the men, the playwright makes them an accessory or tool as soldiers were during Vietnam,” she adds. “It also keeps the main focus on the women.“
A Piece of My Heart has been performed more than 1,000 times since it was written, Lauro says, and the experiences of the various casts she saw perform are much the same. Actors come away emotionally exhausted, with new respect for service people and disdain for military brass.
“I think I learned the same things,” the author says. “I was nearly exhausted from rehearsals, and my hatred of war — any war — became more and more ingrained.”
The play has political overtones like some of Lauro’s other works. But Stein believes there’s more at work here.
“I see the play as political in so much as it is a cry for help,” she says. “This is an era of military history that needs to be addressed fully in all its repercussions so that we can take women in today’s military seriously.
“What I’ve learned about myself is that my trivial stresses don’t compare to the experiences these women had,” Stein adds.
Cooperative Performance's production of 'A Piece of My Heart' runs April 20–29 at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center, 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee. Tickets are $15 at the door, $13 online and $10 for veterans, active military and students with a valid ID. For more information and tickets, visit cooperativeperformance.org.