Casualties of War

Cal State Fullertons A Piece of My Heart

Fuck you, Toby Keith and your goddamn jingoistic redneck flag-waving. Fuck you, SUV drivers and your "these colors don't run" bumper stickers. Fuck you, you evil, evil motherfuckers who believe a high-intensity bombing campaign means minimal casualties: no matter how warped your perception of reality, Iraqis—men, women and children—are alive. They will die. And their corpses will rot. So, fuck you. And fuck you, Christian America, with your obscenely huge American flags draped across your roofs and walls. Fuck you for using Sept. 11 and fears of terrorism to promote your own agendas. Fuck you if you think Jesus bled red, white and blue on the cross. Fuck you if you can't see that Bush's war will be paid for with the red blood of young Americans.

And fuck you if you don't understand that a war doesn't end when the bullets stop flying and the bodies stop dropping. It reverberates in the psyche and haunts forever the souls of all those who experience it.

Like the six women in A Piece of My Heart, Shirley Lauro's powerfully presented if occasionally weakly written drama about life during and after wartime. In this case, the war is Vietnam. Five nurses and a country-and-western singer, all from different backgrounds, volunteer to serve the troops in Vietnam. They all have different reasons—some are looking for love, others for adventure or career enhancement—but they all find their illusions about the war and their perceptions of themselves irrevocably shattered when they land in Vietnam and find themselves at hell's epicenter.

The first act—told in a montage of monologues and quick-cut scenes—details the women's transformations from youthful, hopeful idealists to shaken, battle-seasoned veterans. Dreams of love and acceptance are gone. Now all they want is a drink—even if that drink is champagne served in the Basque restaurants in Saigon. When they first land in Vietnam, few of the nurses know how to hold a scalpel; by the time their tour of duty is over, they are reluctant experts on everything from triage to tracheotomies.

The second act details what happens when they get home. Much like the men they served with, the women feel out-of-place in the mall, the bedroom and the workplace. Some are developing mental and physical conditions we now know were caused by the use of Agent Orange or post-traumatic stress disorder. Some try to lose themselves in the bottle or through a series of failed relationships. But all survive and all converge at the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, where the play begins and ends.

The play obviously exists to throw a little attention and honor toward the approximately 11,000 American military women who were stationed in Vietnam during the war. Most of those women volunteered to go to Vietnam right after high school graduation, making them, according to the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, the youngest group of medical personnel ever to serve in wartime.

The play is based on Keith Walker's book and based on interviews with 26 women who served in Vietnam. I'm not sure about the book, but the play isn't overly concerned with politics or morality. It's a play about people, and while it does tilt to the left—hell, this is theater, people—it doesn't really want to serve any particular agenda other than a human one.

Focusing on the human and reminding us of the human is why this production, directed by Rita Renee, is as powerful as it is. It's certainly not the script, which has some great moments—particularly in a series leading up to the Tet Offensive and its harrowing aftermath in an emergency room—but it also drags, and the dialogue feels tinny and forced, constantly oscillating between trite and histrionic, only occasionally touching down on the real center. But Renee's fluid direction keeps things visually engaging, and her cast, especially Kim Purdy's Whitney and Angelina Kalani Holliman's Leeann, is uniformly excellent.

While this play is obviously about Vietnam, it's hard—no, impossible and irresponsible—in our current clime to see a play that is so awash in battlefield carnage and the psychic wreckage that war invariably leaves in its wake and not feel troubled by the fact that even people who never fire a gun can be just as deeply wounded and severely traumatized by battlefield experience. As A Piece of My Heart most eloquently states, the real problem starts for veterans of war when they're no longer adrenalin junkies. It's when they leave the combat zone and bring all that pain, rage and madness back home to their families and their communities.

War isn't about winning or losing. On the battlefield, at least, war is about surviving any way you can. And the only way to survive in conditions like that is to erect a psychological wall, to just keep doing what you have to do—whether that's bombing a village, strafing a jungle with napalm or moving from one critically injured young man to the next—and not thinking or feeling too much.

The problem with that process is what A Piece of My Heart addresses in its best moments. While the act of building those walls is a self-defense mechanism designed to protect us, the architects also wall themselves away from the rest of the world—and from the rest of themselves. And for many, it's very hard to lower those walls once they've gone up. It's something to think about: once the young men and women fighting Mr. Bush's war come home, they'll be bringing a lot more with them than just medals and stories.

A Piece of My Heart at Cal State Fullerton's Arena Theatre, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3371. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m. $7-$9.

 
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