A PIECE OF MY HEARTBy Shirley Lauro
Suggested by the book by Keith Walker
Greater Cleburne Carnegie Players
Director/Lighting Technician/Set Designer - Jonathan Nash
Stage Manager - Mallory Sellers
Costumer/Make Up - Becki Esch
Light Design - Aaron Ingersol (First Class Productions)
Sound Technician - Shannon Drake Maddox
Producer - Hazel R. Bell
Martha - Mallory Roelke
Mary Jo - Becki Esch
Sissiy - Amanda Parkhurst
Whitney - Kellie Blankenship
Leeann - Amber Winnett
Steele - Shaundra Norwood
American Men - Donn Cato & Asher Refroe
Reviewed Performance: 9/13/2019
Reviewed by Jordan Thomas, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Director, Set Designer and Lighting Technician Jonathan Nash led an overall powerful production, but made several different choices that were inconsistently followed throughout.
Eight simple dark platforms of varying height adorned the stage dressed in burlap, deep greens and time period props. These eight platforms individually served as the only playing spaces for each actor. Blocking was practically nonexistent as players sat on their own platforms for the entire production. This was an intriguing choice that made sense with the format of the script. What I did not necessarily understand, was the inconsistent choice for actors that were obviously having a conversation with each other to look out into the audience in opposite directions from one another, while other times, with no reasoning, look at each other from their distanced platforms while lines were delivered. When there was movement done by all on stage like marching, dancing or falling from an attack it lacked necessary unity and sharpness.
Because of this production’s unique staging, lighting is imperative to help the audience narrow in on who is speaking. Simple spotlights were used throughout the production with the upstage wall sometimes changing in color to signify a move in location. Nash in his role as the Lighting Technician was spot on throughout the show with his lighting cues, almost becoming like a ninth character on stage telling this story. Sadly, Aaron Ingersol’s lighting design did not always succeed in lighting the actresses so their faces could be seen. Due to the lack of variety with height levels in the blocking and the fixed setting of her spotlight, I not once was able to see Mallory Roelke’s eyes, and hats often shaded Shaundra Norwood’s entire face.
In a near empty house on opening night, each actor delivered moments of powerful and praise-worthy performances. The introductory monologues felt quite over-rehearsed and unnatural, but as the story unfolded, so did the ease in the actors’ voices and body language. Their ability to muster up such emotion with quite literally no audience energy and no physical interaction on stage with one other was commendable.
Mallory Roelke embodied strength in her portrayal as Martha. Her voice was full, and she was truly believable as an Army brat. I only wish she had explored more facial expressions than a staple smirk. Kellie Blankenship as Whitney mostly lacked energy and mirroring emotions to match the words she was speaking. She did however come alive in act two as a supporting one-off character. Amber Winnet as Leeann was rough, showing anger yet innocent bewilderment with ease. Becki Esch played Mary Jo, the traveling country singer. Esch had some great acting moments, but I was not impressed with her vocal performance. She struggled to stay on pitch, and when moments came where all the girls were singing in unison it was almost painful. These songs felt like an afterthought and I urge Nash to rethink who should be singing these parts and who should just be mouthing the words.
The true standouts in this production were Amanda Parkhurst as Sissy and Shaundra Norwood as Steele. Steele’s consistency throughout the production was phenomenal regardless of what character she was portraying. Her performance energy began strong and finished with great triumph. Each one of her supporting characters was distinct in voice, body language and expression. She was able to not only deliver a heart wrenching performance, but also bring out moments of comedy seemingly not attempted by her fellow players. Parkhurst was the ringer in tear jerking moments throughout. There was genuine heartache in each circumstance her character walked through, and she possessed a believable transformative joy as her character discovered a true love for Jesus in act two.
Another inconsistent choice was the use of props. Props were used cleverly with one object often having multiple uses such as packed army bags then used as soldiers’ dying bodies. There were also many times that props were not used all together in what were important moments of the show. Each time props were not used it took me out of the moment and left me wondering if this was an intentional choice or if the props were just not found in time for opening night.
The costume design by cast member Becki Esch was admirable, but I believe there was a missed opportunity for the design to better aide in the telling of this story. Because each woman played one main character and multiple supporting characters throughout the play, it was often quite confusing to quickly configure which character each actress was playing at any given moment. It would have been helpful if each actress’s main character had a distinct costume piece that could have been easily worn and removed or altered for all subsequent supporting characters. Instead, some actresses received varying costume pieces for some roles while others remained the same throughout the act for every role they played. However, when a costume change did occur, it was done swiftly on stage in the darkness, leaving me in awe how the transformation was done so well.
Walking into the theater on Friday night I understood that I was seeing a play about women and their true stories serving in the Vietnam War. What I did not anticipate was witnessing a production that would move me so much to research the Vietnam War and explore the roles and history women have had in the wars of our country. This production took the audience on a true emotional war journey while lacking much graphic illustration and gore. This production deserves to be seen and this story should be told. Head on over to Cleburne Carnegie Players for their production of A Piece of My Heart before it closes on September 29.