The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 4, 2011

Play tells untold stories of female Vietnam veterans

By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
Globe Staff Writer

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Award-winning Pittsburg High School theater director Greg Shaw is always on the lookout for strong women’s shows, and this year had a particularly strong upperclassmen group of female actors.

“I wanted to find something that would challenge them, and I wanted to lean toward a drama,” he said. “Something a little more true to life.”

Shaw found it in “Piece of My Heart,” a Vietnam-era drama written by Shirley Lauro and based on a book by Keith Walker. The book is a collection of 26 true accounts of women who served in Vietnam as nurses and in the USO; the play combines those into compelling stories of six.

The three-night production run will open the day before Veterans Day Ñ a happy coincidence, Shaw said. But it’s not necessarily a patriotic piece.

“It’s more realistic, and it certainly doesn’t chant ‘USA,’” he said. “It’s not negative, either, just an exposŽ of real accounts,”

The show is endorsed by the Vietnam Veterans Association, and has been performed near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

It chronicles the women’s lives in two acts, the first being when they volunteered and arrived in Vietnam, and the second being the aftermath of their arrival home. Scenes take place near battlefields, in tents, in the quonset huts of the Vietnamese countryside and on American soil.

“You see them at 19 years old, many of them going to war with that glamorized idea that a young lady can get to go to Hawaii and that will be awesome,” said Shaw. “It suggests that some of the recruitment tactics manipulated them a bit, saying things like, ‘Nurses, they don’t march, they won’t see any combat.’ Well, they were right there. Fifteen hundred of them.”

Exploring elements of a “war without rules,” the play deals with mature topics. Many nurses became addicted to alcohol and drugs while there, and engaged in relationships they might not have back home.

“It also tackles how they weren’t revered, weren’t heroes, weren’t respected when they came home,” said Shaw. “They were ridiculed, picketed against, really hatefully portrayed.”

Shaw noted that the U.S. government did not keep track how many women were killed in Vietnam.

“But it did keep track of Vietcong, Vietnamese nationals, how many M-16s we lost, how many cartridges were fired, how many planes were lost, how many bombs were dropped. They have no true idea how many women served,” he said. “This isn’t history that’s taught in schools very much.”

The cast includes Gabby Murnan (Martha), Gracie Spencer (Lee Ann), Mariah Laman (Sissy), Megan Peters (Whitney), Chelsea Montgomery (Mary Jo) and Lydia McKinney (Steele, an intelligence officer).

Set and technical design is by Shaw and Dan Williams, Missouri Southern State University theater department, and his wife, Denise. Music and the audio track comes from authentic audio recordings Shaw obtained from a man who was a personality on the Armed Forces Vietnam Network.

“I have about 110 hours of radio and daily stuff Ñ music countdowns, ads Ñ so it has a ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ feel,” he said. “That was their lifeline there, their access to the norm.” In addition to rehearsals, Shaw also has directed research and study sessions with his cast.

“I think it does pay homage to the people that served in that war. It certainly suggests it was a mess, and it wasn’t their fault. They did what they could.”

Want to go?

The performance will be at Pittsburg High School, 1978 E. Fourth St., at 7 p.m. on Nov. 10, 11 and 12. Tickets: $4 students, $6 adults, available at the door. Details: 620-235-3200.