This month Cooperative Performance presents the war drama A Piece of My Heart. The Vietnam War is seen through the eyes of the women who served. It’s a compelling look at war from a perspective that doesn’t often get seen. So often war dramas have women serving around the edges of the action. A Piece of My Heart flips this. It’s quite refreshing to see a war drama with a token male. Just one guy in a cast of women in a story that covers one hell of a lot of ground in two hours with one intermission.
A Diverse Ensemble
The scope of the drama is surprisingly wide. The play opens with enlistment and volunteers signing-up to serve in various different ways. Then there’s training, active combat and recreation. We get the end of a tour of duty right before intermission and then...all of the horrors back home after war on the other side of it. It’s a really wide view of the war which manages to feel big and ominous. The impressive thing about this: There are only seven people in the cast and it's a very small performance space.
Tina Nixon is aggressively poised as a career military intelligence officer named Steele. Nixon has a stern strength about her presence which serves as a sturdy backbone for the ensemble. Her formidable energy in the role amplifies her frustration in dealing with the top brass.
Anna Figlesthaler and Nicole Martin play to the heartbreakingly exhausting life of medical support in a war zone. Figlesthaler plays the daughter of a nurse who served in World War II who volunteers for duty in Vietnam and gets more than she’d expected. The depth of Martin’s performance settles-in after intermission when dealing with tragedy at home after the war.
Sheng Lor is given the challenge of one of the most emotionally textured character arcs. At the opening of the drama she signs-up to serve in Hawaii, but gets drawn into Vietnam, where she experiences love, loss and deeper concerns of socio-cultural identity. Lor puts in an amazing performance. Don’t ever recall seeing her before. Hopefully she gets cast in more shows.
Emmaline Friederichs plays a woman from a wealthy family who goes out to serve in the Red Cross. Life in a war quickly toughens her at a price. During service she’s mercilessly precise. In the off-hours, she’s caving-in emotionally. Friederichs carves out quite a dichotomy between the two sides of the character.
In addition to the military and the Red Cross, we get the USO. Ashley Retzlaff plays a country music singer who extensively tours Vietnam. In addition to adding music that sets the mood via acoustic guitar, Retzlaff brings life to a side of the war that adds quite a bit of depth to the drama.
Josh Decker plays ,“The Men.” All of them. There are quite a lot of them in and around the edges of the drama. To his credit, Decker never exaggerates the difference between different characters. He’s able to play a number of different roles without over-rendering each of them in a way that would distract from the women at the center of the drama.
Sweeping War Drama in a Studio
The nation of Vietnam is 127,881 mi². The performance space at the War Memorial is...much smaller than this. Director Abigail Stein has fostered a tempo and intensity that makes the small space feel kind of immense at times. There’s no set and few props. Sound Designer Loren M. Watson’s audio backdrop for the show is minimalist. Stein allows the drama of an intimate space to be about the people caught-up in the drama. Aside from a few images projected in the background and a few sound effects here and there, the strength of A Piece of My Heart largely rests in the energy of the cast, which is well-modulated from beginning to end. Of particular note here is the flurry of activity that we feel in combat as medics get to work. Nixon is the fiery gravity at the center of a storm as Figlesthaler. Martin and Lor rush around amidst the pristine poise of Friederichs tirelessly keeping it all together. At moments like that, the ensemble pleasantly overwhelms.
The Milwaukee County War Memorial Center is the perfect venue for a show about war. A Piece of My Heart is a rare opportunity to see an intimate show in a beautiful space. It’s not often a small-stage show makes it to a piece of architecture that’s as striking as this. The entire space seems to be a tribute to straight lines, right angles an wide, flat expanses. The mid-1950s work by Eero Saarinen seems strange coming from an architect who would go on to design the tulip chair and the Gateway Arch. No subtly elegant simple curves here. Evidently Eero was feeling Brutalism in a very big way when considering the design of a memorial for those who served in the military. Very few curves in the wide, flat space one walks though on the way in to see a show about war. The walk out after the show is pretty breathtaking as well. Emerge from the war drama in the Memorial and there’s the ever-expanding Milwaukee skyline seen from a rather unique perspective. From beginning to end, A Piece of My Heart is remarkably intense.
Cooperative Performance’s production of A Piece of My Heart runs through Apr. 29 at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center on 750 N. Lincoln Memorial Drive. For ticket reservations and more, visit Cooperative Performance online.