Emotional 'Piece of My Heart' on display at Bowie Playhouse

For The Baltimore Sun

The Vietnam War claimed an estimated 58,000 American lives. Fifty years after an enemy campaign in the war racked up staggering U.S. casualties in 1968, the Bowie Community Theatre is offering a brave production of Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart,” honoring the unsung women who served.

Based on oral histories, Lauro’s powerful drama premiered at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City in 1991, and has been performed in an estimated 2,000 times since.

The play’s timeline spans two decades in the lives of an Army intelligence officer, an American Red Cross volunteer, a Navy nurse, two Army nurses and an entertainer. Produced here by the theater’s president, Brad Eaton, and directed by Cody Jones, it is the second of three post-feminist plays directed by women under the theater’s “The Year of the Woman” focus.

Jones, a 34-year military veteran, brings tremendous love and compassion to her production, and displays her firsthand knowledge of the anguish and comradeship of war.

As the lights rise on Dan Lavanga’s black-box set, the female leads are already onstage, soon to be joined by Bill Bodie, who plays multiple male roles in the women’s flashbacks.

Their stories start at the beginning. Each character introduces herself and reveals why she is signing on to serve. Whether they romanticize military service, dream of making a difference, yearn to see more of the world, want to sing — or even believe they’re being assigned to Hawaii — their next stop is Vietnam. Here starts a 20-year journey that offers insight into the brutality of combat, escapism through sex, drugs and rock and roll, the reality of sexual violence and the mental health fallout of memories made in a war zone.

Liv Allen plays Mary Jo — a Texas singer in love with the idea of entertaining “her boys” overseas — with heart. She handles a capella vocals well, but soft guitar music which could be pre-recorded or performed backstage, could have added additional punch to her singing scenes.

As the French-speaking Whitney, Stephanie Allender starts out prim and proper and abiding by all rules, and ultimately drowns her trauma in booze while shattering the audience’s hearts. Her character delivers the memorable line: “You don’t have to shut the s--- up anymore!”

As a naive nurse from a military family, Marsha — portrayed by Jennifer L. Franklin — becomes so traumatized from her experience that she leaves nursing and becomes a born-again Christian. Franklin delivers an intense, convincing performance.

Diana Hutter, too, shines as Sissy, the girl-next-door who survives horrific experiences without realizing the impact the war will have on her own life — and her child’s future.

As Steele, the actress Jaharri is magnetic in her portrayal of a hard-as-nails career Army woman haunted by her inability to save lives because, as a black woman, the intelligence she reported was ignored. Jaharri’s vocal performance of “Down by the Riverside” is a standout.

And then there is Malia Murray making her stage debut as a half-Chinese, half-Italian nurse who just wanted to go to Hawaii and discovers her own propensity for violence with excellent stage presence. Murray has also designed the sound for this production.

Bodie, who served in the U.S. Air force in real life, plays the American Everyman and is admirably convincing in all of his multiple roles, some of which are intensely demanding.

The acting is always gripping in Bowie Theatre’s current run of “A Piece of My Heart,” but Act One lagged opening weekend, in part because the set design, which accommodates lovely visual compositions, requires long crosses for the actresses. Starting lines a step into moves, instead of after arriving at their destinations, could help pick up the pace.

Act Two is a doozy, and Jones’ blocking composition set against the illuminated Vietnam Memorial is a show-stopper — and a poignant one as America marks Veterans Day.

In her program notes, Jones writes: ”I hope I have done my fellow comrades some justice in directing this historical piece, as it marks the 50th anniversary of the TET invasion in Vietnam.”

She has. Take tissues.

"A Piece of My Heart" continues through Sunday, Nov. 18, at Bowie Playhouse, 16500 White Marsh Park Dr. Shows are 2 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets run $17 to $22. Information: bctheatre.com.

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