A PIECE OF MY HEART Full of Originality, Grace, and Depth

A PIECE OF MY HEART Full of Originality, Grace, and Depth

Jyreika Guest in A PIECE OF MY HEART. Photo by Al Zayed.

Review: A PIECE OF MY HEART at Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble

By Haley Slamon

As a woman, telling your emotional story in a male dominated society is hard. This story is even harder to tell when you are a woman working in the US Army in Vietnam, and there are people dying all around you. In the final show of their 15th season (dedicated to the woman’s voice), Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble is tackling six very different true female veteran narratives in Shirley Lauro’s A PIECE OF MY HEART with originality, grace, and depth. CDE’s multidisciplinary approach to art and activism is able to translate the struggles of being a Vietnam veteran into an accessible and engaging piece of theater, which perfectly communicates the human emotions of joy and love that endure even through terrible circumstances.

In many ways, CDE is a stunning example of what a small storefront theater company’s mission should be. The entire creative team is dedicated to providing theater with a purpose through performance and teaching, and has the uncanny ability to do a lot with very little. A PIECE OF MY HEART is a continuation of the ensemble’s work in addressing the emotional struggles of veterans (originally seem in the short devised work “Unraveling Bill”) and bringing the identity and mental problems of transitioning from combat to civilian life into the public eye. This attempt to be accessible and active in the community is even seen in their show pricing, with the show being free to all veterans, high schoolers, and mothers on mother’s day, and half price for college students. The company’s efforts to tell these often ignored stories and to share them with the community is noticeable and admirable – and makes buying a ticket feel as much about supporting social justice as buying entertainment.

After getting a ticket, being personally welcomed by the artistic director Sara Maslanka, and buying a concession from the founder Ellyzabeth Adler, the house doors open. The room that the show takes place in is huge with high arching church ceilings, and yet the stage for the show is situated in an almost claustrophobic alcove shrouded by white muslin and paint streaked taffeta, much like a small macabre circus tent. As the show begins, we are quickly introduced to six women with different goals, backgrounds, and ethnicities, who are shipped off to Vietnam either more than willingly, or with several significant apprehensions. The small intimate tent shifts scenes almost every minute, becoming a crash landing plane, a USO show stage, a mass casualty emergency room, and the nurses’ secluded barracks. The music and voices that are placed outside of the tent add a layer of depth and surround sound that makes the audience feel as if they are part of the environment.

Meanwhile in the midst of these scenes, the actors each beautifully deal with their characters’ own problems of femininity, sexuality, race, romance, and the overreaching shadow of death that is currently plaguing all of their lives. The scenes in which the nurses carol over dying soldiers in their intensive care ward (that are represented by Army duffels, literal body bags) or fall in love with a soldier only to have him die within moments are heart wrenching, but are tempered by the scenes where the women unwind and support each other, singing and smoking pot, or sharing a drink and a tentative kiss. The shifts are instantaneous, occasionally confusing, and sometimes lead to line flubs, and yet the action mimics the realities of war: a frantic, overwhelming rollercoaster of emotions. While each element on its own leaves a little to be desired (such as the line flubs and lack of harmonies in the music), as a full product it creates an immersive naturalistic show that doesn’t feel overproduced or false in any way. This unfiltered honesty and emotional vulnerability in all aspects of the performance are what keep A PIECE OF MY HEART compelling for the full two hour run time.

CDE has not only painted a portrait of the specific struggles of female veterans, but a portrait of the strength and endurance of all women. The diverse female characters are exposed to seemingly insurmountable dangers and horrors, and yet they survive, transition back to civilian life (to different degrees of success), and live on to share their stories. It is a testament that even when you are working within a system or environment that disregards your needs, emotions, and efforts, the human condition demands connection, pain, and joy to be felt, not shut behind a wall. If you want to be enveloped in a production that beautifully displays these emotions while telling the all too often forgotten historical stories of courageous and unique women, then A PIECE OF MY HEART definitely delivers, and is more than worth the price of admission.

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About author

Haley Slamon

Originally from San Francisco, Haley Slamon is a recent transplant to the Chicago area. When she is not auditioning for shows, Haley enjoys seeing theater that showcases diverse and underrepresented groups that she identifies with (namely queer, plus sized women), knitting, playing piano or guitar, and binge-watching Netflix. She is proud to be helping PerformInk nurture the wonderful companies that are attempting to improve the art-form and their communities by creating engaging, diverse, and meaningful performances.