Pieces of the Past

54feb2fd 97a6 40a2 a4c8 41501a247bb3Drake University’s final show of the school year is A Piece of My Heart. Set during and after the Vietnam War, it follows the stories of six women and their interactions with the war. No one is ever prepared for what that kind of monumental conflict will mean when one has to confront it for the first time... let alone the toll it takes on the self, loved ones, and even complete strangers in the years afterwards.

What You Have to Give

Director Erin Horst is leading her cast of six strong women (and one very versatile man) into creating this show about a war that was fought years before any of her charges (or even herself) were born. That’s enough of a challenge right from the start. “There’s no question that the material is hard for us to relate to, so when I began this process I started with all the research I could get my hands on,” Horst says. “The novel (also titled ‘A Piece of My Heart‘ by Keith Walker) is recorded interviews with women who served, and that sense of immediacy and intimacy to tell their stories is preserved in [playwright Shirley] Lauro’s play, through the way she chose to have her characters communicate. They are in direct address with the audience for the majority of the show.”

 

Horst continues, “This play has so much to teach us. For one, there are so many things I (and the rest of the cast) were not aware of concerning women’s roles in the war. The play specifically sets out to shed light on the female experience in Vietnam, because it’s not what society is used to hearing about when we speak of this part of our history. No one knows the exact amount of women who served. In fact, there are only 8 female names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall. We (as a cast) thought that was pretty unbelievable.”

 

A93e878d 3a04 4699 adff 5441cddc7c95Director Horst finds a rather unique element in the structure of A Piece of My Heart. While there are six different women portrayed in the story with their own individual narratives, the ‘American Man’ character in each woman’s tale is played by the same actor. “In my opinion,” says Horst, “the ‘American Man’ serves as a supporting character in this story. To these women, the men are all the same, so it’s fitting that they be played by the same actor. As for the women, I see them each as one piece of a whole. To me, they could all be the same woman, and I’ve tried to portray that in the direction.”

 

Senior Maddie Ripperger plays Martha, a head nurse in a medical unit in the war zone. “She is described as ‘strong’ and ‘pioneer-like,’” says Maddie, “however throughout the process I have found that strong can sometimes be a misleading word. In playing the script I found that Martha’s toughness and strength is really a facade she puts on for the rest of the world and to reassure herself in tough times. But through her arc we see her feelings about war become much more complicated as the women are abused and neglected in their time after Vietnam. Because she does put on the strong facade through her time in Vietnam, the moments where she breaks down are really surprising and meaningful.”

 

Another of the women is played by Maria Gnoza, whose character finds herself torn by her own feelings towards the conflict and her desire to help as best she can. “I play Leeann in A Piece of My Heart. Leeann is an outgoing, lively character who is incredible compassionate. She is an anti-war demonstrating nurse, who still holds a sense of pride and disgust for her involvement in the war. While she may be outspoken and brave, she too finds moments of pure helplessness in the midst of chaos. I admire Leeann so much because of her ability to find joy even in her darkest times.”

 

What You Take With You

D17f764b f01e 4ff4 a140 299e4da27758In order to better understand those ‘darkest times’, the cast met with a woman who had served as a nurse in Vietnam. “We spoke with her for over an hour,” says Horst, “and what was remarkable was how she seemed to be almost quoting the play with her own stories. That was very special for us, because the cast felt a deeper connection to the material, having heard some of their own characters come to life in her words. It was eye-opening, and I feel so humbled by her willingness to talk with us so freely about her experience. We had a very powerful rehearsal that night after our conversation with her, and it’s only continued to grow.”

 

“One thing we were really struggling with is a scene in Act 2, where the characters are in a group therapy session, all dealing with their own demons and PTSD - which, at the time, hadn’t really been diagnosed yet. Of course, it’s easy to connect with our own personal baggage as human beings, but there is just no way for us to fully understand feeling the aftermath of a war - especially something as sensitive as the famous Tet Offensive that’s portrayed at the end of Act 1. After hearing her speak about it, it because quite clear the direction we needed to go. We hope we can do these women’s stories justice, and give them the attention they deserve.”

 

Hannah Stibbe, another senior involved onstage in A Piece of My Heart, understands firsthand some of those stories and issues through family members who lived through the Vietnam conflict. “I actually have two people I know very well that served in Vietnam. My grandpa was a colonel in the war and doesn’t talk about it too much, but still looks at life in a more serious way. My mom’s fiancé also served in Vietnam but had a harder time there. He goes to the Vet center and shares stories of what he experienced.”

 

“Whenever I hear either of them talk or make reference to their time in Vietnam it makes me terrified of the potential for that to happen again, especially in today’s society. I look at my brother, my boyfriend, and even myself and just pray that we won’t have to come to a place on this Earth where we are fighting for our lives everyday.”

 

“Addressing the hard things in our world is something that I have noticed many people try to laugh over or brush off. Events like the Vietnam War are something we can’t just overlook anymore. Theatre and art are so important in today’s society to talk about the issues and events that we have faced to help build awareness and a community.”

 

What Helps You Move On

Cd2783cb b37f 4607 9969 7a5cd0e3afdcDirector Horst is adamant about her goals with A Piece of My Heart, and what it means to herself and students. “Perhaps the most beneficial thing about working on this play is how much it’s teaching us about our own selves as artists. It’s not an easy show to produce. We all want to do it justice, and make sure these women’s stories are told in the right way. We’ve had a lot of time to workshop different scenes, and try different acting techniques to make connections with the material. It’s also been a great challenge for me as a director with all the technicalities it requires.”

 

“The women are onstage the entire time, they play multiple parts to support telling their stories, which includes costume changes onstage. The locale changes a lot, but we’re using a unit set in a deep thrust setting, so that becomes an entirely different challenge. It’s been a wonderful learning experience, and I think together we’ve come up with something dynamic, visceral, and quite beautiful. It’s a great piece of theatre.”

 

“It’s really a play about healing. It isn’t about pushing an agenda of any kind. While the theme of anti-war is noble, timeless, and certainly universal, A Piece of My Heart moves beyond the universal into the personal. We simply want to acknowledge the sacrifices, hardships, loss, and indeed pride of the many women who served in Vietnam.”

 

Drake University’s Theatre Department presents A Piece of My Heart from May 3 - 6 in the William S.E. Coleman Studio Theatre, in the Harmon Fine Arts Center on the Drake Campus. Tickets are available through the Drake Fine Arts Box Office and also through their ticketing website

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Maddie Ripperger A Piece of My Heart Erin Horst Maria Gnoza Hannah Stibbe