For the past twenty-three years, Jeff Modereger has told first-year students a poignant story about one of his first plays at UVM as a new theater professor. Illustrative of the healing power of good theater, the story has stayed with many students long after graduation.
One of those students, Randa Karambelas ’01, was so moved by Modereger’s description of the audience reaction to “A Piece of My Heart”—a play based on true stories told by women who served in Vietnam—that she vowed to produce it one day in New York. Now an accomplished actor, producer, and writer, Karambelas made good on her promise by bringing the play to the off-Broadway IATF theater in September via her own production company, Little Spoon, Big Spoon Productions, LLC.
What’s more, she vowed that only Modereger could be the set designer—another promise kept.
Karambelas had one condition: that Modereger’s design would be the central element. “I hired my entire production team with the disclaimer that the scene design was already established. Once everyone saw Jeff’s design, they were all on-board and we built the production from there,” Karambelas says. At first glance it is a raked stage covered in textured fabric with bamboo lattice work in the background. The design is deceptively simple, until the end when it underscores Shirley Lauro’s entire script and the twenty-year journey these women have been on. “It ties together the past, present, and future in a way that I have never seen done before in theatre. And no one in the audience expects it. It’s the final button.”
The final moments of the play, when Modereger’s full design is revealed, the textured fabric is pulled back to show a panel from the Vietnam Wall, Panel 17E, revealing names of real soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
What each audience member doesn’t know is Modereger’s design pays tribute to his cousin, David E. Hevle—a Marine Corps Corporal who died in 1967 while on duty in Quang Tin.
For Modereger, Karambelas and the production team, this entire play is a tribute. “The storytelling, the direction, the acting, and each of our design elements echo the only line that is repeated throughout the play, ‘To honor the brave men and women who served so well and gave so much,’” says Karambelas. The play ends with Taps and a small candle illuminating a soldier’s name before fading to black.
As a student, Karambelas remembers Modereger recalling a veteran who sat in the audience and sobbed; a woman who knelt and kissed the name of her son, depicted on the stage wall; and a girl who saw her father cry for the first time, later sparking a dialogue about his wartime experiences.
“This NYC production was no different. Each night we had vets coming up to us. Thanking us for this powerful, emotional tribute, reliving their stories to us. We even had some of the original woman attend. They were honored we told their stories so truthfully and passionately. And every one of them mentioned the Wall as a powerful tribute connecting it all to today—incredibly moving. Even the playwright herself, Shirley Lauro, gushed over the design,” Karambelas says.
“That’s the power of theater,” says Modereger, a scenic designer for Broadway, television, and film. “We humanized everybody sitting in the theater and made them a participant of going to the wall. It stuck with Randa all these years. It’s the reason I keep telling these stories to my students.”
For Karambelas, bringing the play to New York marks a milestone in a career that began in theater, took a turn into the corporate world, and has returned to her love of the stage.
Building from experience gained in the business world, she launched Little Spoon, Big Spoon Productions, along with business partner Chelsea J. Smith, with a focus on socially conscious artistic ventures that support related non-profits. “A Piece of My Heart” supported Hope for the Warriors, a veterans organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life for post 9/11 service members and their families. Collecting 20 percent of ticket sales and 100 percent of donations, this production raised $4,000 for Hope for the Warriors. This contribution will be used to support those touched by military service, helping them succeed at home by restoring their sense of self, family and hope.
One of her proudest accomplishments with this production: keeping it in the UVM family, hiring UVM alums such as Timothy Parrish ’07, as lighting designer; Danielle Varcasia ’10, as an electrician; and Jamien Lundy Forrest ’01 as part of the technical crew.
“Jeff taught me that art can heal,” says Karambelas. “As an artist, I have learned that if art doesn’t move you, mark you or change you in some way, then you are doing it wrong. I am so fortunate that today, all these years later, I have been able to team with my college professor on a professional level and do just that. We’ve come full circle. I am very proud of what we have put on this NYC stage.”