Written by Nancy Bannon & Mollye Maxner
Directed by Mollye Maxner
When people quote General William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous maxim, “War is hell”, they’re usually referring to the carnage and chaos of the battlefield. But for many soldiers, the fires of war don’t stop burning after the military campaign has run its course. They rage on inside the veteran’s psyches, consuming their lives, their families, their society. Using dual time frames and a collage of theatrical techniques OCCUPIED TERRITORIES paints a searing – if flawed – portrait of the ongoing repercussions of war.
Single mom Jude Collins (Nancy Bannon), returns to her hometown to bury her father. Jude is due to check into rehab in a couple of days, and hopes to use the time to reconnect with her preteen daughter Alex (Ciela Elliott). Mother-daughter relations are strained, however, as Jude has been unable to really be there for Alex. It’s Jude’s sister Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), that’s been raising the child while Jude attempts to sort her life out. Adding to the tense family dynamic is the fact that Jude and Helena have sharply different views of their late father. To Helena, he was a good man who bore the scars of war as well could be expected. Jude sees him as an unstable and irresponsible father who used his brief tour of duty as an excuse for bad behavior. Slowly, though, Jude’s perspective begins to shift. Left alone in the basement of the old house, she goes through her father’s collection of photos and artifacts from the war. She also helps herself to his prodigious stash of prescription medication. As Jude slides into a reverie, the tromping of combat boots and the voices of soldiers chanting cadence calls is heard. The audience is brought into the scene as the actors march behind the seats and up the aisles of the theater. The action shifts to Vietnam, 1967.
Here we meet the young Private Collins (Cody Robinson) and the guys in his platoon. Even-keeled Lucky (Diego Aguirre) operates a shortwave radio, which Sergeant Ace Andrews (Donte Bonner) uses to alert his superiors that his men can’t hold their position and are running dangerously low on rations, ammunition, and medical kits. Predictably, the hoped-for supply drop is a long time coming, and morale worsens among men who have already seen too many casualties. Particularly caustic is the Brooklyn-born Corporal Michael “Ski” Makowski (Scott Thomas),who gives Collins no end of grief but deep down is actually looking out for the new recruit. Rounding out this motley gang are the garrulous Private Alvarez (Thony Mena), quiet but courageous Hawk (Nile Harris), and the frail Private “Hardcore” Harcourt (Nate Yaffe), who hasn’t spoken since a word the death of his buddy two weeks previous.
Collins, nicknamed “Cornbread” by his peers, carries his Nikon camera everywhere, but it’s his innocent eyes that are really taking in the details. He sees more than his mind can process, especially as the futility of the mission grows clear. In this incomprehensible world, any sense of moral certainty is destroyed and wanton waste of human life becomes the new normal. No one seems to know why this war is being fought in the first place, let alone whether the U.S. has any chance of winning it. And yet the slaughter continues, and the soldiers have only each other to cling to. The love Collins feels for his comrades in arms will supersede all other relationships, and the battle Jude fights for her father’s affections will prove unwinnable.
To a degree, we’ve seen this story before: an ethnically mixed battalion bonding under heavy fire: a young man’s disillusionment in the foxhole. But co-creators Nancy Bannon and Kellye Maxner bring an innovative sensibility to familiar Vietnam story. Stark realism is juxtaposed against lyrical dance sequences and colorful photos of smiling Vietnamese villagers. The show’s immersive approach effects both the audience and the ensemble. Like the G.I.s they portray, the actors coalesce into a group of men whose mutual trust and loyalty are palpable in a physical, immediate way that gives the show’s brutal ending its devastating impact.
Despite these strengths, though, the show suffers from some missteps. For starters, its title is misleading: the term “occupied territories” today refers to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Also, the civilian side of the narrative is considerably less developed than the soldier’s story. More details about the Collins family’s past and present would have given more dimension to the conflicts Jude, Helena and Alex are working through.
Even so, OCCUPIED TERRITORIES’ rough edges are outweighed by its raw performances, well-researched story line and flawlessly choreographed battle scenes. Its images and voices reverberate long after the curtain call.
OCCUPIED TERRITORIES continues through November 5, 2017 at 59E59 Theaters 59 East 59th Street, New York, NY 10022. Tickets: 212-279-4200.