‘A Piece of My Heart’: This play tells the stories of women who served in the Vietnam War

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Based on interviews with 26 women, “A Piece of My Heart” intermingles the stories of women who served in the Vietnam War. The play explores their lives before, during, and after their service.

Though originally written for six women and one man to play multiple characters, the abundance of talent at the auditions led director Gail Westerfield to add a chorus/ensemble to join the six named characters, and cast two All-American guys to play the men in the show — love interests, military brass, wounded GIs, and more.

The local cast members from “A Piece of My Heart.” Front row, from left: Margy Oehlert, Maria Combess, Carol Miller. Middle row: Kay Owen, Eddie Watson, Joellen Hirschey, Anne Helm. Back row: Karl Wells, Heather Szeder, Jill Sheldon, Jessica Lopes. Photo by Captured Moments Photography.
The local cast members from “A Piece of My Heart.” Front row, from left: Margy Oehlert, Maria Combess, Carol Miller. Middle row: Kay Owen, Eddie Watson, Joellen Hirschey, Anne Helm. Back row: Karl Wells, Heather Szeder, Jill Sheldon, Jessica Lopes. Photo by Captured Moments Photography.

Ensemble member Carol Miller said she finds it challenging “to try to create a number of completely different characters,” among them a child with Agent Orange disease, a backup singer in a USO show, an experienced war nurse, and an idealistic young Registered Nurse.

Miller, whose older brother was a Recon Marine who did two tours in Vietnam, has had many memories resurface “about that time and emotions that have been buried for a long time.” She says she’s gained new insight into how women who served were affected in the same way as their brothers in arms. Seeing the play, she feels, “will help heal some, honor others, and give some insight into women who also played a real role in the Vietnam War.”

Joellen Hirschey, one of the play’s younger cast members, said, “I wanted to do this play for my grandfather,” who served in Vietnam but, like most vets, spoke little of his experience there. “When the audience applauds, I want the vets in the audience to consider that applause to be for them, because they deserve it,” she said.

Hirschey plays a sweet, naïve, but ultimately powerful nurse, Sissy. She feels her biggest challenge as an actor is imagining herself in a war zone. “Trying to find that fear and chaos inside yourself is a wonderful challenge and an exhausting task. My character watches men die right in front of her; getting yourself to that place without forcing it and seeming dishonest is a very difficult job.”

“My character is a perfect example of how the human psyche can heal itself,” she continues. “Sissy, like many others, experienced hell on earth in Vietnam. She came out damaged in mind and body, but her inner strength is so beautiful, and I believe that inner strength is in us all: to adapt, to overcome. That is what is so beautiful about this show: we are reminded of how strong we can be.”

Kay Owen, who is fairly new to the stage, said she is up for the task of playing Mary Jo Kincaid, lead singer of the Sugar Candies All-Girl Band, in a play that has it all: “Romance, treachery, good guys, bad guys, drama, comedy, music, interesting characters based upon real people, and, at least for some of us, it brings back memories.”

She recalls her own opposition to the U.S. presence in Vietnam during the war, but says the play offers a sense of closure about “such a polarizing event that went on for so many years with tragic results all around.” Owen finds it “quite moving that the entire cast and crew is of one mind to tell the story of the characters’ lives truthfully and respectfully … As my minister says, ‘You do not need to think alike to love alike.’ We all love our country.”

Margy Oehlert, who is new to Beaufort but not to the stage, said she finds the play’s cast stellar. “They all have a professional attitude and have been a delight to work with. Without our fabulous teamwork, we could not be effective in telling this amazing story that needs to be told,” she said.

Oehlert’s character, Martha O’Neill, is a Navy nurse — a take-charge officer who finds herself unprepared to handle the devastation of the war. An educator for 30 years, Oehlert stresses the importance of learning about “a history that is not often taught.” The child of a WWII vet and the sister of a Vietnam vet who returned from service only to die young of what was likely Agent Orange disease, Oehlert finds herself now “overwhelmed with the love and duty to our country by so many veterans who have been forgotten.” She states with pride that, as Martha says, “A Piece of My Heart goes out to each one of them.”

Like Oehlert, Anne Valle Helm’s favorite thing about “A Piece of My Heart” is her castmates. “The play provides a wonderful opportunity to work with an interesting, diverse group of talented people,” she says.

Helm plays Whitney, a wealthy, well-educated young woman looking for an adventure who signs up with the Red Cross to be a “Donut Dolly.” Noting that the women on whom her character is based are now her age, Helm says she was moved to learn about the brave and accomplished women who served in Vietnam. “In 1968, I was carefree and hitch hiking through Europe, while she was concentrating on staying alive in a very controversial war.”

“A Piece of My Heart” has further strengthened her love of her country, Helm says. And while she has found that those who served have some terrible memories of their time in Vietnam, “most of them also have stories of bonds with people and experiences that changed their lives for the better.”

Like the play’s other actors, Maria Combess admires her character, a feisty former hippie-turned-nurse, Leeann, for both her strong will and her vulnerability. “I love the fact that it is a true story,” she adds. “People need to know about the women who served in Vietnam and how they were such an important part of the war, in spite of the terror and dismay they experienced.”

Combess notes that, while the women who served can’t forget what they suffered, in the play they ultimately find a sense of peace. As a mother of a son, she finds it especially easy to empathize with her character’s pain and sadness at the fates of the men and boys she tries to save. While telling Leeann’s story in “A Piece of My Heart,” Combess finds satisfaction in channeling her sometimes overwhelming feelings in order to portray her.

“They took care of our sweet boys,” Combess continues. “These women were the last people that some of these guys saw or talked to before they died. You couldn’t have that experience and be the same person ever again.”

“A Piece of My Heart” will be presented Friday, May 16 and Saturday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 18 and Sunday, May 25 at 3 p.m. at the USCB Center for the Arts, 805 Carteret Street, Beaufort. On Thursday, May 15, a special performance will honor active duty military and veterans and their families with $15 tickets with a military ID. Tickets for other performances range from $15 – $22. For more information or for tickets, call the box office at 843-521-4145 or visit www.uscbcenterforthearts.com.