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War Stories : The CSUN cast of 'A Piece of My Heart' learns about Vietnam while portraying the women who served there.

October 16, 1992|KAREN FRICKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Karen Fricker is a Northridge writer

In a crucial scene of Shirley Lauro's play "A Piece of My Heart," an Army nurse in Vietnam comforts a dying 18-year-old soldier by letting him call her Mommy, even though she's just 21 herself.

And that's about the average age of the seven-member cast performing the West Coast premiere production of Lauro's play, opening tonight in the Cal State Northridge Campus Theatre as part of Theatre CSUN's season. Watching the energetic cast of undergraduates rehearse this play about women in Vietnam, it's a jolt to realize that they're playing their age, and that any of them could have lived through the experiences they're acting onstage.

"I didn't know anything about Vietnam before this play," says Stephanie Lesh, 20, who plays USO entertainer MaryJo. Her fellow actors agree that performing in this play has been eye-opening. For African-American actress Sharon Thompson, 23, who plays Army intelligence officer Steele, the biggest challenge of her role "is not understanding racism and sexism--I'm dealing with that all the time. The hardest thing is making being in a war--being in Vietnam--real."

"A Piece of My Heart" is an adaptation of Keith Walker's book based on letters and interviews with women who served in Vietnam. It received favorable attention at the 1991 Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville; Mel Gussow of the New York Times called it "a model of the art of dramatic collage."

The play has been produced at the Philadelphia Drama Guild and off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club. Playwright Lauro plans to attend its overseas premiere in Durban, South Africa, in March.

The play begins and ends at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Visiting the wall triggers six women's memories of their time in Vietnam, and the play follows them from their enlistment, through the war, to their difficulties in adjusting to postwar life.

Seeing Lauro's play has proved an emotional experience for men and women who served in Vietnam.

"I was backstage during a special performance for Vietnam vets during the Philadelphia production," Lauro said in a phone interview from her New York home. "At the end of the performance many of the vets were so moved that they stormed the stage--many of them in wheelchairs--embracing the performers, and me. I was very shaken. I had no idea this play would affect the audience so personally."

Anamarie Garcia, an assistant professor in the department of theater at CSUN and director of this production, is particularly interested in how the play deals with women's experiences. "Many people don't even know that there were women in Vietnam," Garcia says. "Keith Walker's book and this play are breaking ground in talking about what they went through."

Ellie Vargas, Southern California regional director of the Vietnam Women's Memorial Project, estimates that there were more than 250,000 women in uniform during the Vietnam War, 10,000 of whom served overseas, mostly in health care. A challenge to Vargas' organization, which seeks to recognize the women who served, is that often the women don't publicly identify themselves as having been in Vietnam because they have difficulty coping with the experience.

To prepare for the CSUN production, the cast met with counselors from veterans organizations and with women who served in Vietnam, including a former USO volunteer who, up to then, had spoken about her experience in Vietnam so seldom that even her grown children did not know she had served there. Her behavior, Garcia says, is typical: "Don't think about it. Don't verbalize it. Repress it. That's how many women deal with their memories of Vietnam."

The CSUN theater department has contacted more than 80 veterans groups in Southern California in an effort to let men and women who served in Vietnam know about the production. Two of the women whose stories--told in Walker's book--are the source of Lauro's play will travel from the San Francisco area to attend a CSUN performance.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: "A Piece of My Heart."

Location: CSUN Campus Theatre, 18111 Nordhoff St., Northridge.

Hours: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday, and 7 p.m. Wednesdays, through Oct. 25.

Price: $8-$10 general, $6-$8 seniors and $4-$6 students.

Call: (818) 885-3093 weekdays between 9:30 a.m. and 5 p.m.

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