Occupied Territories, a visceral and exciting new play co-written by Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner, focuses on two sets of characters separated by 50 years. It begins and ends in the basement of a family home, where Alex (Ciela Elliott) has come with her Aunt Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell) to bury her grandfather. They are quickly joined by Alex’s mother, Jude (Bannon), who is recently out of rehab but still in a halfway house. Jude is trying to connect to Alex after what seems to be a series of disappointments her addiction has wrought in the past.
The older women, who as children were part of a Christian band, occupy only a small part of the stage with Alex, on a raised platform. They are soon surrounded by a platoon of soldiers, in Vietnam 50 years earlier, in 1967. The men are deep in the jungle, maintaining a position against an enemy with dwindling food and the imminent prospect of being overrun. These military scenes are exciting, tense and persuasive, and it’s a credit to Bannon and Maxner’s writing that they are. Whether they have backgrounds in the military or not, they have vividly imagined both the cohesion and the friction of a fighting force that they cannot have known firsthand, because it was all-male in the time period of the play.
Although all seven of the soldiers have starkly individual personalities, the one who is the rookie—Cody Robinson’s Collins—is the focus. Gradually one learns that Collins is the parent of Jude, who has resented him her whole life. Her addiction to drugs, it seems, is partly a result of his emotional coldness toward her, yet in the jungle one sees a young man trying desperately to fit in and be friendly with his more experienced colleagues. It’s difficult because one—Nate Yaffe’s Hardcore—barely speaks, and another, Scott Thomas’s shaggy-haired Corporal Makowski, aka Ski, has the personality of a lighted stick of dynamite.
In the basement, Helena and Jude find a recording they made and talk about their perceptions of their childhood.
Helena: I know our house was kind of crazy but some parts of it were really great. We were an actual band.
Jude: No, we weren’t. He was pimping us out as a band to make people like us.
Helena: Jude, he was genuinely looking for God…. He was doing the best he could. Have a little compassion.
Jude: I tried that but there he was again, screaming at us for hours over nothing….
Helena: You just said you wouldn’t go down this road today.
Jude: What, it was perfectly acceptable for him to push us out the door at midnight for those fucking safety drills? Hiding out down here for weeks on end?... He duct-taped mom’s mouth and hands.
When Helena leaves again, Jude finds horrific photographs that Collins took in Vietnam that come alive as the soldiers reenact them. Although the social divisions created by Vietnam have receded, the authors approach them freshly. Maxner, who has directed as well, puts the audience around the space, in a shadowy jungle; the soldiers enter and exit behind them, so one feels immersed in the action. The soldiers talk of snakes, spiders, tigers, and punji stick traps—a jungle full of constant danger. There’s also the killing of a Vietcong fighter and the desecration of the body, followed by an extraordinary extended dance sequence (by choreographer Kelly Maxner) as Hardcore and another soldier, Hawk (Nile Harris), do a thrillingly athletic pas de deux that conveys wordlessly the trust, danger, and exhilaration that accompany combat.
The performances are excellent, even if addiction seems to be a staple of many current plays. O’Donnell brings a reservoir of strength and patience to Helena, and, among the soldiers, Donte Bonner’s Sgt. Ace Andrews and Thomas’s Ski invest their characters with enormous levels of testosterone fueling the opposite natures of their characters: Ace is level-headed, upright and protective; Ski is fearless, ruthless and overbearing. Robinson brings a doe-eyed innocence to Collins that provides a sad contrast with the image that lives in Jude’s memory and is not quite erased from Helena’s.
Even if elements are familiar—the drug struggle, the atrocities, the memory play device—Maxner’s production invests it all with enough that’s new, raw and unexpected to make a visit worthwhile.
Occupied Territories plays through Nov. 5 at 59E59 Theatres (59 E. 59th St.). Evening performances are at 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday and 8:15 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; matinees are at 2:15 p.m. on Saturday and 3:15 p.m. on Sunday. For tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit 59e59.org.