Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Theater Review: Queens for a Year -- Hartford Stage

Charlotte Maier, Vanessa R Butler, Heidi Armbruster, Alice Cannon. Photo: T. Charles Erickson
 It Feels Like the Enemy Just Messed With Our Minds – and We’re OK with That
By Lauren Yarger
T.D. Mitchell writes a disturbing and gripping tale of the consequences of war that orders us to stand at attention and prepare for an inspection of what we think about training people to kill. And with Queens for a Year, getting its world premiere at Hartford Stage, she examines the topic from a unique perspective: the role of females serving in the military.

Mitchell has visited the military before. She was a writer for TV’s “Army Wives” and explored the stories of Viet Nam vets in her play Beyond the 17th Parallel. It was interviews conducted for the latter which triggered the writing of Queens for a Year.

The play focuses on a 2007 visit by Lt. Molly Solinas (Vanessa R Butler) to her rural Virginia home (designed in framed simplicity by Daniel Conway) where her family is excited to welcome her and her friend, PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver), back from duty in Iraq. They understand what the women have been through more than most as the multi-generational clan know all about serving their country. 

Molly’s aunt Lucy Walker (Heidi Armbruster) served until her lesbianism and the service’s lack of tolerance for it got her discharged. Her grandmother and namesake Molly, still goes by Gunny (Charlotte Maier) and her great-grandmother, Lu (Alice Cannon), served in World War II. Only Molly’s mother, Mae (Mary Bacon), isn’t all ooo- rah about a family of Marines. Her religion and calling as a midwife who brings lives into the world are at conflict with training to kill.

Amanda quickly bonds with Molly’s kin and feels at home, but it is apparent that she and Molly have sought shelter at the peaceful farmhouse from something sinister following them from Iraq. Through flashbacks, sharply directed by Lucie Tiberghien around the fringes of the home trimmed with camouflage material or upstairs where an uneasy Iraqi checkpoint suddenly comes to life, we begin to understand that the biggest threat the women Marines faced while deployed might not have come from the enemy.

Things aren’t easy for women serving overseas in the current conflict. In fact, it is a whole different front from when Grandma Lu packed her parachutes in the big war. Now women in service are called one of three things, Amanda tells us: a slut, a dyke or a bitch. The play’s title, program notes inform us, comes from an expression used to describe a female soldier or Marine serving her overseas tour of duty year, implying that even an “ugly” female gets away with slacking off and being unduly treated as a queen in the male dominated environment. A wink from a woman can imply consent for much more than intended and the knives the women soldiers carry offer protection against enemy attack – whether it is from their own male company members or Iraqi insurgents.

During her tour, Amanda was raped by a superior and his buddy, but the Marines have a zero tolerance policy for these types of incidents which means she doesn’t really have the option of reporting it or of seeking any justice. This is made plain to her by a staff sergeant (Mat Hostetler) who gets wind of the case and intimidates Amanda to make sure she won’t pursue it. Molly tries to help, but a senior female officer, Capt. Diaz (Jamie Rezanour), urges her not to get involved.

The women end up having to take things into their own hands –with the help of Molly’s ready-made militia family -- especially when the rapist feels threatened that Amanda might be able to prove what happened and pursues her and Molly to Virginia.

Mitchell’s no-nonsense writing style establishes a bond between the audience and the women early in the two-hour, 15-minute production. In quick military fashion, we see Molly transform before our eyes from a woman into a Marine (Beth Goldenberg costumes). We know these women and like them all, especially Grandma Lu who reminds us all of our own beloved elderly relatives who are not afraid to say what’s on their minds and Cannon wisely doesn't overplay the part.

The playwright makes us uncomfortable, however, by targeting some messages that might have been trained into our thinking about what is normal when it comes to war. We don’t question Grandma Lu’s patriotism, for instance, but then we’re a bit disturbed by the apparent prejudice still holds again people of Japanese descent. We are all for the US Marines – until we start hearing some of the cadences sung out and repeated back from time to time throughout the play. The work songs apparently are genuine, if not sanctioned, and are too vulgar to re-print here 9the theater recommends 14 and up for viewing the play). They make us pause in our admiration for an institution that accepts as "normal" training with chants full of glee and pride about killing people and treating women in the most vulgar of ways. And are we really OK with feeling nonchalant when it comes to killing?
It’s a little like realizing that the enemy has gotten inside your mind and messed with you and now you are forced to wonder whether you’ve been just a bit brainwashed by the good guys too. It’s definitely theater that makes us think: it's a boot camp for the mind.

Even the conclusion leaves us questioning our values as we surprise ourselves by easily rooting for a bloody outcome. The effect would be even more dramatic, however, if we had a clearer understanding of why Molly decides to take things into her own hands when she does and what her fate is. Without that, the ambiguity weakens the impact.

Another area that could use a tweak from Tiberghien is the timing and delivery of the humor. There is some in this play, despite its otherwise somber theme, but some jokes are lost, or have less oomph than they should.

Deaver is solid as the Corps-tough soldier who can’t quite forgive herself for not being strong enough to protect herself; Bacon finds depth in Mae that realistically portrays the love of a mother conflicted with the path her child has chosen. Butler seems less certain in her role, but it is fitting as Molly herself is trying to figure out where a woman can serve comfortably in a man’s military.
Its engrossing story brings the issues of women’s role in the military, burdens placed on families with members serving and the realities of women in combat front and center for full inspection.

Queens for a Year plays through Oct. 2 at Hartford stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evenings at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.   Tickets $25-$90.  (860) 527-5151; www.hartfordstage.org.

Additional credits:
Wig Design by Jodi Stone, Lighting Design by Robert Perry; Sound Design by Victoria Deiorio, Fight Direction by Greg Webster; Dialect Coaching by Robert H. Davis. 

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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