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On Theater: ‘A Piece of My Heart’ offers a powerful female retrospective on Vietnam

“A Piece of My Heart”

Angela D. Watson performs in “A Piece of My Heart.” The Vietnam War story centers on vignettes from women’s service.

(Courtesy of Michael Dale Brown / Costa Mesa Playhouse)

Standing ovations are rare in community theater, but the one delivered to the cast of “A Piece of My Heart” at the Costa Mesa Playhouse after the Feb. 4 opening performance was, most certainly, justified.

Shirley Lauro’s emotional tribute to the women who served as nurses in the Vietnam war — and the bitterness they faced afterward — is brilliantly related by director Kathy Paladino and a true all-star cast. The half-dozen actresses who relate incidents from the conflict and its aftermath are uniformly outstanding.

“A Piece of My Heart” resurrects a period of American history that most of us either have forgotten or were born too late to experience — the horrors of Vietnam and their effects on those who came through it apparently unscathed. As a theatrical piece, it offers exceptional opportunity for all six principals to render compelling performances, as they do on the Costa Mesa stage.

In this true ensemble exercise, the women take turns grasping pieces of our own hearts as they relate their life-changing experiences. The first act comprises their Vietnam service; the second focuses on their frustrations upon returning home. Only the final scene, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., finally offers an emotional uplift.

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The tightly bound cast consists of Martha (Kim Sava), a professional nurse frustrated by military regulations; Sissy (Hannah Suria), agonizing that she was sent to Southeast Asia rather than a more familiar Hawaii; Whitney (Shannon Dodson), beautiful and well educated but out of her depth; LeeAnn (Katie May Porter), sustained by her religious beliefs; Steele (Angela D. Watson), on a career course in the military; and Mary Jo (Caitlin Fuller), not a nurse but a USO entertainer with a killer set of vocal cords.

The story is told in episodic form, focusing on vignettes from each woman’s service. One such telling point is Steele’s researched premonition of the Chinese participation in the Tet offensive — which is brushed aside by the Army brass. It’s curious that the African-American character is the only one billed by her last name, Steele.

The men who fought the war are distilled into one actor, Hans Kelsen, who plays them admirably. He and Sarah Rohrer provide musical accompaniment (including popular anti-war songs) not specified in the script but added, quite effectively, by director Paladino.

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Those seeking theatrical fulfillment typically found only at South Coast Repertory should take a piece of their heart to “A Piece of My Heart” at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

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IF YOU GO

What: “A Piece of My Heart”

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 611 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Feb. 26

Cost: $18 to $22

Information: (949) 650-5269

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“A Murder is Announced”

Performing a scene from “A Murder is Announced” are, standing from left, Lucy Abel as Phillipa Haymes, Hayley Jackson as Julia Simmons and Yvonne Robertson as Dora “Bunny” Bunner. Seated is Harriet Whitmyer as Letitia Blacklock.

(Courtesy of Newport Theatre Arts Center)

 

Murder served up Christie-style in Newport

Over in England, the words “Christie” and “mystery” virtually rhyme since one is so closely associated with the other. Agatha Christie is, according to the Guinness World Records book, the best-selling novelist of all time.

Many of the books of Dame Aggie, who specialized in convoluted whodunits, were turned into theater projects. And no one could toss the red herrings around pages or stages like she could, particularly in the areas of characters not being what they seem.

A prime example is her 1950 project, “A Murder is Announced,” currently housing the stage of the Newport Theatre Arts Center under the direction of Sharyn Case. It’s a sterling example of circuitous plotting and the roundabout route the authorities take to capture the guilty party.

One of Christie’s favorite sleuthing characters is the gentle old soul Miss Marple (Judy Jones). But in “A Murder is Announced,” this lady is merely a party guest, a background character, until the climax when, of course, she prevails.

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At Newport, the focus is on Letitia Blacklock (Harriet Whitmyer), a rooming house operator and potential heiress at whose dwelling the announced (in the local press) murder occurs — in the dark, naturally. Then other characters vie for audience attention as the village constabulary homes in on their fibs and foibles.

Among the more interesting suspects are Dora “Bunny” Bunner (Yvonne Robertson), Letitia’s flighty, slow-witted gal pal; Julia Simmons (Hayley Jackson), a niece whose affectionate relationship with her brother Patrick (Jeff Budner) appears more than filial; and the ne’er-do-well son (Seth Weiner) of one of her lady friends (Mary Pat Gonzalez), who hopes to become a writer — eventually.

All are competent, but the actress who truly steals this show is Carla Naragon as a hot-tempered Russian maid. She’s given a juicy part, and she bites into it with relish. Also particularly strong is Floyd Harden as the brusque Scotland Yard inspector trying to solve the crime.

It may seem a bit corny and melodramatic today, but Christie once made a quite comfortable living weaving plots like this one, which still charms audiences, at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.

*

IF YOU GO

What: “A Murder is Announced”

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday until Feb. 26

Cost: $17

Information: (949) 631-0288


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