by John Stoltenberg
The theater is no a stranger to the wounds of war. Countless plays and performance pieces have opened our hearts and minds to that which is unhealed and raw, to that which persists as pain and trauma, to that which has cut down the lives of even those who come home from war alive.
Theater keeps us mindful not only that there are too many such stories to tell but that truthful storytelling of war’s human consequences is essential. For if there is any chance that war will end for ever after, it will be when civilization reaches consensus that no one can ever win a war because war by definition is failure.
The urgent cannon of great theatrical works that tell of war’s grievous after-effects has now been joined by a powerful and heartrending new play just opened at Theater Alliance. Titled Occupied Territories, it looks at what U.S. military action in Vietnam did to one American family—in particular the injury it did to the relationship between one Vietnam veteran and his daughter. Remarkably, in such synecdoche, Occupied Territories becomes before our eyes an emblem of a grieving war-torn era that mires our nation still today.
Occupied Territories is a devised play, meaning that it emerged out of collaborative workshops, not a playwright’s script. It began at Theater Alliance two years ago with but a few sentences of text for each of its scenes sketched by Mollye Maxner, the visionary prime mover who conceived and directed the work and who is herself the daughter of a Vietnam War vet. Unlike devised pieces one sometimes attends that display imaginative theatrical effects but lack a coherent emotional flow to carry things along—so the experience is more diverting than engaging—this one felt as if it were coursing on a current over heart-stopping rapids.
The play is staged in the round; there are only about 40 seats ranged in a circle in the Anacostia Playhouse black box. The story begins in a wood-framed thrust set depicting a basement (by Scenic Designer Andrew Cohen), where two bickering adult sisters, Helena (Adrienne Nelson) and Jude (Nancy Bannon), are going through the belongings of their recently deceased father, a withdrawn and troubled man who served in Vietnam 45 years ago and evidenced lifelong symptoms of PTSD. Jude especially is bitter that her father did not treat her better, and she discounts the significance of his military service, because his story to the family was that he was never in combat.
We learn that’s not what happened at all, in a most affecting dramatic reveal. A squad of Army servicemen led by Miles (Elliott Bales) explosively takes over the space around the basement set and makes of it a perilous night-time jungle in Vietnam (effectively aided by Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson and Lighting Designer Kyle Gran). One young grunt, a boyish Collins nicknamed Cornbread (Cody Robinson), bears the brunt of other squad members’ hazing and razzing. He is innocent patriotism personified. “This can’t be for nothing, right?” Collins asks not really rhetorically. “FTA,” says a grit-tough squad mate; “fuck the Army.”
Collins announces with excitement he’s about to be a father. Later he gets a letter telling him he has a newborn daughter, named Jude. And in that stunning moment we realize we are about to find out what happened to Jude’s father 45 years ago in the war that left him unable to communicate the unspeakable.
As Jude’s and Collins’s stories unfold and interconnect across the expanse of 45 years in two immersive and simultaneous settings, the action moves back and forth between basement and war zone. There are indelible passages of sound and movement, including shocking incidents evoking the horrors of war that American soldiers not only suffered but perpetrated against civilians. There is also a shirtless pas de deux performed with breathtaking force and grace by Hawk (Thomas Rowell) and Harcourt (Nathan Jan Yaffe) that vividly conveys what Jude’s father meant when he told her that the bond between battle buddies far surpassed familial love. (Yaffe doubles uncredited as a civilian in choreography so chilling it seems inhuman.)
Occupied Territories was co-written by Mollye Maxner and Nancy Bannon, co-choreographed by Mollye Maxner and Kelly Maxner, and performed by a cast of eleven, including other Army squad members Lucky (Freddie Bennett), Ace (Desmond Bing), Cargo (Stephan Horst), Alex (Jake MacDevitt), and Professor (Thony Mena).
By the end I was so emotionally devastated by what I had seen that I myself was unable to speak until a good several minutes later. I only half-facetiously reflected that the production should be followed by grief counseling. I surmised from a talkback after that the piece impacted others deeply as well.
Not only is the particular story Occupied Territories tells extraordinary; so also is the original dramatic manner in which it does so. You may think you’ve seen plenty enough of the Vietnam War up close and personal. You may think you already know the drill. But when you experience how Occupied Territories tells its moving, memorable, and mythic story, you’ll have to think again.