In a special Memorial Day Weekend three-performance outdoor presentation by L.A.-based Venture West Theater Co. at the National Cemetery of West Los Angeles, Shirley Lauro’s well-balanced dramatization of the oral histories of six American women who served in Vietnam could not have had a more telling or sobering setting, surrounded by acres of white gravestones that mark the final resting place of thousands of American veterans. Staged with economy and fluidity by Johnathon Pape on Lawrence Miller’s amazingly functional multi-level, netting-draped set, the experiences of three neophyte nurses, an intelligence officer, a Red Cross volunteer and a USO entertainer are seamlessly intertwined. Despite a tendency to over-project through their wireless body mikes, the seven-member ensemble offered compelling portrayals.
The first act introduced these enthusiastic, life-loving young ladies who are achingly innocent. Three recent nursing school graduates — effusive Asian-American Leann (Jeanne Mori), idealistic military brat Martha (Connie Ventress) and bubbly WASP Sissy (Elizabeth Morehead) — no sooner arrive in Vietnam than they are confronted with a soldier with his face blown off, whose foot stays in its boot when removed. As the deaths mount around them, they are sternly ordered to cover up the corpses and “move on.” They soon learn the only way they can keep their sanity is to “stay behind an emotional wall.”
This ferocious loss of innocence is also experienced by Texas-born singer/guitarist Maryjo (Cynthia Carle), sophisticated, Vassar-educated Red Cross worker Whitney (Adrienne Brett Evans) and ambitious African-American career intelligence officer Steele (Juanita Jennings). All three believed that service in Vietnam would enhance their future careers.
Lauro effectively chronicles each woman’s “descent into hell” and the often insane escapism each utilizes to dull the reality of her existence. As they relate, however, no amount of alcohol, drugs, sex and rock n’ roll can take away the horror of their existence and the ever-increasing belief that they shouldn’t be there.
Act two follows the women through their post-Vietnam experiences trying to assimilate in an America that is totally indifferent to and often repulsed by their wartime experiences. Ironically, they come to learn that each attained a level of personal heroism and fulfillment in the war that can never be matched again.
This reality causes a catharsis in all their lives, eventually leading them to seek solace and healing in a Vietnam veterans support group, culminating in their participation at the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
All the performances were first-rate. A monumental plus to the production is the excellent vocal/guitar work of Carle, whose musical offerings weave themselves beautifully into the fabric of the narratives. Also deserving special mention is Matt McKenzie, who adroitly finds the essence of each of the myriad men who affected the lives of these women.