Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of QUEENS FOR A YEAR by T.D. Mitchell at Hartford Stage
Through October 2nd
Even as a writer with myriad adjectives swirling around in my word-filled brain (in my left inferior frontal gyrus to be precise), it is impossible to choose a single descriptor for the highly provocative experience of playwright T.D. Mitchell’s world premiere of Queens for a Year which opened the inimitable Hartford Stage’s 53rd season. What does come to mind? Intense. Powerful. Riveting. Revealing. Disturbing. Explosive.
But what exactly does the term “queen for a year” mean? Is it a status of elevation that brings with it privilege and pampering? Royal luxury? Honor? Respect? In a civilian world, perhaps. But being queen for a year in the military has a much darker connotation; it is a female soldier who, due to her service, is considered much more appealing simply in the absence of other attractive civilian females. Similar also to the term “desert fox” – a female soldier who is considered more attractive because she is “down range” (in combat zone). These are monikers dubbed to women in a highly misogynistic, hostile culture of testosterone, aggression, and power – one where a woman’s very existence is threatened on a daily basis due to rampant sexual abuse, victim blaming, denial, and cover-ups.
Mitchell doesn’t shy away from tough topics. As a staff writer and story editor for TV’s Army Wives and the author of the play Beyond the 17th Parallel, she’s also no stranger to military stories. In her writing and in her research about the lives of those in the armed service, she came upon an issue that was perhaps in some ways even more compelling – that of an enemy within. A foe that isn’t an external one from a country on the other side of the globe – instead, one who is right next to her, lurking in wait. Perhaps he’s her peer, standing alongside her in combat. Perhaps he’s her superior. Perhaps he’s not a he, but a she – a commander she trusts and has approached for support, advice, or to report a crime against her. But in addition to the abuse she’s endured, she’s promptly dismissed, even shamed, ridiculed, or punished. According to one source, “Sexual assaults make up the fabric of daily American military life.”
One need only read the description of “Being a Marine” on the Marine Corps website to see where gender inclusion takes a sharp detour. “From the day young men and women first earn the right to call themselves Marines, they take their place in an extremely proud heritage, and they will remain part of it forever. Expressed in our motto, Semper Fidelis, ours is a family that looks after its own in every way. Whether a Marine remains in the Corps for a few years or an entire career, he or she will retain the benefits earned by keeping this nation safe and free. By becoming one of us, your title will be your membership into an everlasting brotherhood of warriors – those who will stand by you in battle will never leave your side.” He or she may join, serve, and call themselves a Marine. But of what have you become a part? And everlasting brotherhood of warriors. A brotherhood – a relationship between brothers – one which promotes the interests of its own – like an elementary school boys’ club where there are “no girls allowed.”
Queens for a Year unapologetically tackles these highly-charged issues; and it’s a story that isn’t for everyone. Mitchell acknowledges that there have been theatre “walk-outs” and even some flak; and that’s to be expected. The military isn’t the only place where denial exists. Among the most common, primitive psychological defense mechanisms, denial is the refusal to accept reality or fact, where one acts as if a painful event, thought, or feeling does not exist. We all do it.
But in many respects Queens for a Year also is about sisterhood – for the entire cast with the exception of a lone male is female; a sisterhood of military women spanning four generations. It’s about love, respect, admiration, and protection of one another. It’s also about asking questions and expecting answers. It’s about removing the shroud of invisibility and demanding to be seen and heard. This production and each member of its cast and crew nailed it a thousand-fold.
Told almost entirely in flashbacks following the interrogation of Mae Walker about the preceding events at her childhood home, we know something unimaginable has taken place. When her daughter, 2nd Lieutenant Molly Salinas, returns to rural Southern Virginia with Private first class Amanda Lewis, they look like two college co-eds on spring break. It quickly becomes clear that they’re not on a holiday, however, and there’s something dark brewing. They are running for their lives. Molly is a fourth-generation Marine, a service which began with her great-grandmother “Grandma Lu,” and her grandmother “Gunny Molly Walker”; but was somewhat interrupted when her Aunt Lucy was a product of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and kicked out of the Marines, and her mother, Mae, elected to turn to Christianity and became a midwife following a stint in the Peace Corps. Molly is caught between her impassioned love for family and her service to the Marine Corps, but also a quest for justice. Amanda, a lower-ranking officer with no real family of which to speak and who clearly suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, feels right at home at the farm house and doesn’t want to leave.
Four generations come together in their own unique ways to fight the impossible fight – and despite their varying perspectives, do so as a unified alliance.
Vanessa R. Butler as Molly is strong, determined, committed. Her performance is intense and gripping and her relationships with each of the characters are genuine and beautifully nuanced. Sarah Nicole Deaver as Amanda is equal parts anxiety, vulnerability, and honesty. It’s hard to see her as anything but a little girl stuffed into a military uniform who’s spent her life both running away from and toward things, never quite clear about her own self or her abilities. Mary Bacon, who delivered an all-out incredible performance recently as the pained mother-to-be in Hartford TheaterWorks’ The Call, is equally as incredible as the passionate mother whose love and fear for her daughter’s welfare gave this mother the chills.
Charlotte Maier delivers an amazing performance as the tough-as-nails Gunny Molly whose exacting expectations in running her household as a retired Marine vet only could be a mirror held up to her former service in Corps. Alice Cannon’s Grandma Lu is a dynamic force – the funny, fiery matriarch who despite her aging afflictions is always quick with a story or sage advice. Heidi Armbruster as Aunt Lucy is the loveable, warm counterpart to the less compromising other family members.
Rounding out the cast in multiple roles as the chilling face of the military are Jamie Rezanour as female ensemble and Mat Hostetler as male ensemble. They each provide numerous scenes which deliver important and deliberate sources of discomfort to the audience, but are necessary components to understanding the events leading up to the action of the main story.
Lucie Tiberghien expertly directed this extraordinary ensemble with a sure-hand, never faltering in the legitimacy of Mitchell’s compelling story. Special thanks also to Cpl. Brianna Morgan Maldonado who served as U.S. Marine Corps Advisor to the production. With a terrific set which includes lower, upper, and downstage elements, we spend most of our time as voyeurs into the actions taking place in the farmhouse kitchen; but also into the frightening and tender moments in Molly’s bedroom, as well as the devastating events in Camp Lejeune and in Iraq. Kudos to Daniel Conway for his innovative scenic design, complemented by Robert Perry’s lighting design, and Victoria Deiorio’s original music and sound. Shout-outs also to Beth Goldenberg for costumes, Jodi Stone for wigs, Greg Webster as fight director, and Robert H. Davis as dialect coach.
I would be remiss not to acknowledge dramaturg and associate artistic director Elizabeth Williamson, whose shrewd judgment and wisdom are responsible for bringing Queens for a Day from the Bay Area Playwrights Festival to the attention of artistic director Darko Tresnjak – a man whose visionary thinking has given Hartford Stage a remarkable edge in the theatre world. Time and again, Hartford delivers thought-provoking, professional, exceptional works to Connecticut and beyond. This is a must see.
QUEEN FOR A YEAR: Derogatory term for 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… (from the Queens for a Year program).
My father was part of what Tom Brokaw has coined “The Greatest Generation.” He was a Marine and fought on Iwo Jima. While he was never uber-military in his manner or ways, there was a definite legacy left to me as the son of a Marine. Marines are warriors – they are the first ones sent into conflicts. Marines are tough and loyal – Semper Fi. Life is hard and as a Marine, sometimes you just have to suck things up and move on – because that’s what being a Marine means. Watching Sands of Iwo Jima starring John Wayne whenever it was televised was a staple.
So it was with this background and this context that I had the fortunate experience to see the premiere of T.D. Mitchell’s new play, Queens for a Year. Directed by Lucie Tiberghien, Queens for a Year is a searing, riveting, mesmerizing play. Indeed, thematic elements including loyalty, institutional infrastructures, tradition, passion, misogyny, and of course, human relationships in wartime conditions are masterfully woven into a dramatic patchwork of brilliant writing, directing, and acting.
The play explores the trials and tribulations that continue to exist for women serving in the military today – particularly the Marine Corps. I must confess, even as the son of a Marine, I had no idea that there were women who served in the Marine Corps as far back as 1918 during World War I. Four generations of a family of Marine women form the background upon which the main action takes place. Lt. Molly Salinas, the newest generation of Marine women in the matriarchy, returns home for a weekend visit with her friend and underling, PFC Amanda Lewis. There to greet and interact with them are Gunny Molly Walker, Molly’s grandmother, Lucy Walker, Molly’s aunt, and Grandma Lu, Molly’s great grandmother – all of whom have served in the military. It seems the military gene – if there is one – skipped Molly’s mother, Mae Walker, who opted for the Peace Corps and the Bible. What begins as somewhat of a relaxing respite from the daily pressures of military life quickly turns into a horrific nightmare of a cat-and-mouse game involving Molly, Amanda, and a sadistic, misogynistic male officer hell bent on their destruction.
The tale of a male in a dominant position of power taking advantage of a female underling is not new. But the situation is given a fresh twist and opens a Pandora’s box of questions and issues when set in the context of a modern government infrastructure that – for lack of a better description – inculcates, underscores, enhances and, perhaps, falls a centimeter short of encouraging inappropriate behavior between disparate individuals. The male-female conceit could just as easily have been replaced with a male-male situation where someone who is perceived as “weaker” is taken advantage of by superiors. A Few Good Men immediately comes to mind, the play and film both rooted in real-life events.
The acting is flawless. Vanessa R. Butler as Lt. Molly Solinas and Sarah Nicole Deaver as PFC Amanda Lewis are both spot-on as the newest generation of military recruits. The actors bring both strength and vulnerability to their characters, engendering audience empathy and understanding for their predicaments. Charlotte Maier as Gunny Molly is perfect as the main reservoir of strength and reason for this matriarchal hierarchy. Heidi Armbruster as Lucy walker, Molly’s aunt, serves as a nice counterpoint and comedic foil to the others as the military wash-out of the family. Special shout-outs must go to Alice Cannon as Grandma Lu and Mary Bacon (whom we loved in The Call) as Mae Walker – who portray two almost completely diametrically-opposed characters in personality, outlook, and spirit and yet convincingly convey familial love and loyalty despite their ideological differences. Amid this sea of incredibly talented estrogenic acting, which also includes a wonderful asset in Jamie Rezanour as Female Ensemble, Mat Hostetler more than holds his own as the Male Ensemble who doubles for the male parts. He has a commanding stage presence whenever he is on.
A great deal of the play’s success must be attributed to its abundance of verisimilitude. There is not a fake or unauthentic note anywhere in the play. This obviously is due to the Herculean research job that playwright T.D. Mitchell did before and during the writing of the piece. The director, Lucie Tiberghien, did a masterful job of staging, blocking, and eliciting the outstanding performances from all of the actors.
My bad for not always recognizing things like scene design which are as much a part of a play’s success as any other element. The scenic design by Daniel Conway was exceptional, conveying a panoply of locations including a peaceful homestead in Virginia, Camp Lejeune, a military base, and Iraq.
Finally, special nods must go to Dramaturg Elizabeth Williamson and Artistic Director Darko Tresnjak for recognizing the importance and relevance of a theatrical piece like Queens for a Year and bringing it to life in the theatre so that we can explore, discuss, and ultimately enjoy it.