LEWISTON – The students featured in Niagara University Theatre’s upcoming production of “A Piece of My Heart” only know about the Vietnam War from what they have learned from history books, movies or, in some cases, reluctant snippets from grandparents.
But in this production they are immersed in true stories told from the point of view of six women who chose to go to Vietnam and came back as different people.
“A Piece of My Heart,” a readers’ theater production, will be presented Thursday through Sunday in the Castellani Art Museum in conjunction with a special exhibit of modern art that is designed to capture the darkness of war and the innocence lost by the six women.
The play, written by Shirley Lauro, is based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Keith Walker. The book gives the oral histories of a number of women who served in the war and their experiences both in Vietnam and when they came home.
For the students involved in the show, awareness of a war that happened several decades before they were born has a new intensity – especially the light that is shone on women, who are not usually spotlighted in Vietnam War accounts.
“This not only educated me, but helped me to educate the kids as well, especially this group of women, about our roles as women – being a mother, a caretaker, a wife or even a sexual being over there when there weren’t many women,” said adjunct professor Amanda Lytle Sharpe, who is the show’s director. “There’s not much out there about women in Vietnam. That’s the sad thing. There’s no account even of how many. They are estimating 11,000.”
She said “Pieces of My Heart” shows how women went over with cute uniforms and vague ideas of wanting to help and found themselves in the thick of things, crawling through the mud and dealing with blown-off body parts. It also shows how the women came back and dealt with the negativity from the public and the post-traumatic stress of the war.
Phoebe Wright, 21, a junior theater major from Fairfield, Conn., plays Whitney, one of the six women featured in the play.
“My freshman year, a girl in my class did a monologue from this play, and it was the first time I was exposed to ‘A Piece of My Heart,’ ” Wright said. “It was such an inspiring piece and so beautifully written that it inspired me to read the script.”
Wright called it “a wonderful testimony to the strength and the spirit of the women.”
“As controversial as the Vietnam War was, this show gives you a look at the men from the point of the view of the women’s eyes,” she said. “It humanizes a terrible, terrible time in our nation’s history, especially when the men came home. These women are able to be their voices. “It challenges you to think, not just about war, but racism, sexism, depression, alcoholism.”
Kyle Baran, 20, a junior theater major from Clarence, is the only male in the readers’ theater production. He plays 24 small roles, from soldier to officer to father and even TV reporter. He said he wanted to give each character a name, a back story and individual voice.
“It was a daunting challenge. I’m used to playing only one character throughout a show,” Baran said.”I want the audience to say they’ve seen 24 different men, not just one guy.”
He said his research into roles has also meant research into the Vietnam War.
“Beforehand, I had seen a couple of movies and had very limited schooling, but I took the time to watch plenty of documentaries, interviews and different movies to just get a full picture of what happened,” Baran said.
For Stephanie M. Valliere, 21, of Fairport, a senior theater major who is part of the show’s Greek chorus, the experience of the Vietnam War hit a bit closer to home.
“My grandfather was in the Army at the time,” she said. “He did not go to Vietnam, but he could have, and all I know is the experience my family went through. I know my grandfather did a lot of training when my dad was young, and when my grandfather was training and done training, my dad didn’t know who he was.”
Other students in the show, all theater majors, are: Leacel Hillenbrad of Oneida, Lauren Parrow of Fairport, Kendyl Anne Litwiller of Naples, Breanna Aldinger of Lancaster and Elena Victoria Feliz of Tonawanda. Also in the Greek chorus are: Selina A. Heinen of Hamburg, Toni Shinkel of Tucson, Ariz., and Nicole Weintraub of Port Crane.
Performances are at 7 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday with a post-show discussion with the cast.
Sharpe said the show is done in the round, with the audience all around the stage, which also works well to spotlight the large pieces of art on the walls.
“By putting it in the round, there is a more intimate feeling, because this is the account of these women and their roles in Vietnam,” said Sharpe. Referring to the art exhibit, she added, “The way I am putting the audience, wherever they look they will see one of the main walls, so the art is actually infused into the world of the play.”
She said that unlike some typical readers’ theater productions, where actors read from scripts, the actors are all off-script, and there are even some costumes and props.
“It was just too powerful,” Sharpe said of the decision to add additional elements. “You are going to come into the Castellani feeling as if it is a full-blown show.”
Speaking of the young performers’ understanding of the long-ago war, Valliere said: “I don’t think it would be fair to say we understand or really imagine what it would be like, but we certainly are trying.”