For six women, Vietnam War changed everything

From the left: Andrea Lyman, Ariela Nazar-Rozen, Jenna Lea Scott, Marge Dunn and Victoria George in “A Piece of my Heart.” Photo:  Nile Scott Hawver

“Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.”

– Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar”

WELLESLEY – No one came back from Vietnam unchanged.

There’s no pigeon-holing the experiences of those who were caught up in what was undoubtedly America’s most unpopular war. They

And while virtually all of those who died in the conflict were men — 58,300 men and eight women, all of whom were military nurses – some 11,000 women served in Vietnam during the years of 1956 and 1975, usually in the areas of medical personnel and other support staff.

What became of those women? What were their experiences like?

Shirley Lauro’s 1991 play “A Piece of My Heart,” now being presented by the Wellesley Repertory Theatre, is a powerful true story suggested by the book by Keith Walker.

It is a harrowing and ultimately inspiring tale of how their time in Vietnam changed them – and, by extension, the entire country – forever.

The two-act play follows six women who went to Vietnam – three Army nurses, a Red Cross volunteer, a country and western singer and an Army intelligence officer — before, during, and after the war.

Nurse Martha (Victoria George) admits to being a “military brat” who wants to be an Army nurse like her mother.

Sissy (Ariela Nazar-Rosen) is sweet, warm and rather naive, which doesn’t serve her well in the hellhole that is Vietnam

Mary Jo (Marge Dunn) leads an all-female country rock band intent on entertaining the troops in the war zone.

Marge Dunn in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in “A Piece of My Heart.” Photo: Nile Scott Hawyer

Whitney (Sarah Lord) is a Red Cross volunteer whose time in Vietnam is complicated by the fact that she is not allowed to have sexual involvement of any kind while int the country, so any kind of meaningful relationship quickly goes south, emphasizing her loneliness and isolation..

Jenna Lee Scott is Leeann, lured into the Army with the promise of being stationed in Hawaii, where she would be at home with her Asian-American heritage, then being told Vietnam “is a lot like Hawaii.”

Steele (Andrea Lyman) is a “lifer,” an Army intelligence officer, Her report, accurately predicting what became known as the Tet Offensive, was disregarded merely because she was a woman, lower on the chain of command.

After she spent three years in Vietnam, she returned to Fort Bragg, where she was offered essentially the same job she had when she left to go to Vietnam.

Danny Bolton and Alan White competently occupy a long series of male roles.

Physically and mentally, all six women are thrown into the breech, including th nursing supervisor who is quickly overwhelmed by the sheer needs of th soldiers, who are being maimed and lay dying all around them. Also they find strength they never knew they had.

The harrowing first act portrays the chaos, the death, the drugs and booze that helped get them through the days and nights when death lurked around every corner.

Just as service members in Vietnam often returned to jeers instead of cheers, Leanne meets a protest head-on while wearing her fatigues at an airport and is forced to quickly run for cover and change.

And when the women came back from hell and rejoin the other side, heir problems mirror those of the returning soldiers. There’s unemployment, discrimination, Agent Orange mutations, and emotional scarring such as post-traumatic stress syndrome

They find different way to cope: AA, joining the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a strong Christian faith. In the case of Mary Jo and her bandmates, sexual assaults they suffered during their time made all the more stinging when an unscrupulous agent cheats them out of the money they were supposed to have earned.

There’s a poignant moment at the conclusion when the women return to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington in 1982 and place small mementos pf their time there, perhaps finding the peace that eluded so many who came home.

Scenic designer Janie Howland and Johnathan Carr’s projections replicate the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington; Chelsea Kerl’s costume designs cover the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s; Matt Whiton’s lights and and George Cooke’s sound design are key components in the harrowing war scenes.

“A Piece of My Heart” is being directed with her customary care and attention to detail by Nora Hussey, WRT’s producing artistic director since the company was founded in 1998.

The footprint and reputation of the company have grown in the past two decades under Hussey’s guidance, but she will leave her duties with WRT and as director of theatre and theatre studies at Wellesley College after this production. Hussey, the 2004 recipient of IRNE Award, will work in documentary filmmaking in Ireland and the U.S.

The Wellesley Repertory Theatre production of Shirley Lauro’s “A Piece of My Heart.” Directed by Nora Hussey.. At the Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre at Wellesley College through June 24.