The searing, profoundly trenchant Occupied Territories, directed by Mollye Maxner, captures one’s emotions from the outset. The production effectively wrangles our feelings as it conveys the suspense of soldiers’ combat in a war zone. Also, it spotlights the familial conflicts caused by a father’s attempts to deal with those horrors years later. Indeed, the production’s poignancy, heartbreak, and riveting action move in an intense forward motion with no let-up.
In recounting the impact of the Viet Nam War on one soldier and his family, Occupied Territories portrays an unforgettable portrait. Additionally, its dramatic reevaluation of war’s effects in the vet’s life afterward establishes issues we encounter in the present. At times the production becomes painful to watch. Though the play doesn’t provide easy answers, it does insure that visceral catharsis can uplift us. Even though the real battles have ended, the warfare continues in the individual soldier’s soul, mind, and emotions after he returns. Indeed, they must resolve these conflicts or end their own lives.
Solidly written by Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner, Occupied Territories alternates between heightened intensity and emotional poignancy. Its dramatization feels more like event theater. One cannot easily relax through acute, dramatic combat scenes and remain detached. Throughout, the events and dynamic action mesmerize. All the better for the themes must be experienced in light of what our soldiers and Gold Star families go through. Unfortunately, their experiences can never be apprised by civilians who rarely understand the harrowing shocks of battle.
When their father Collins dies, Jude (a riveting, on-point Nancy Bannon), Alex (a fine Ciela Elliott), and Helena (a stabilizing Kelley Rae O’Donnell), return to the family home for the funeral. Clearly, the narrative unfolds as they go through their Dad’s war mementos in his basement “office.” From their heated interactions, we understand that Jude, the eldest, suffers from drug addiction. Whether prompted by the pain of experiencing her Dad’s struggle with PTSD or other contributing factors, Jude’s heartbreaks spill out on her daughter, Alex. Currently living with Aunt Helena until the end cycle of Jude’s rehab, Alex hesitates to trust her mother. Helena, the balanced younger sister attempts to soothe tensions but adds to them when revealing she’s inherited the home from their Dad.
Interspersed with family conflicts, recriminations and positive and negative memories, the scenes of their Dad’s combat mission unfold. Deep in the jungles of Viet Nam, he and six buddies battle with each other, explode with stress, and fight “the Gooks.” Brutalities inner and outer win the days and nights. They weather the rains, starvation, fearful ambushes by Viet Cong, and their own brutality of Vietnamese innocents. And Collins (a sweet, unassuming Cody Robinson), goes head to head with Ski (a superbly terrifying Scott Thomas), who resents Collins’ middle class upbringing and liability as a newbie.
The soldier cast ensemble relay tremendous performances and work as a unified whole. Importantly, they remind us that soldiers stay alive for each other as a family. The propagandaistic rationale for which they fight has long fallen on the trash-heap of failed and meaningless “ideals.” As they struggle for their own lives and their military family, we “get” that war’s hell destroys bodies, minds, souls.
Sadly, human beings perpetuate its sorry existence. And those who “happen” to enter hard combat in the dirtiest battles suffer untold miseries. Such pain curtails the import of true valor, from one soldier to the next. The military brass awarding honors often does so spuriously for artificial reasons. The gesture becomes meaningless when vets consider their buddies who lost their lives. Thus, honor remains with the individual solder as he must make his own peace in self-validation or self-annihilation.
Alone in the basement while Alex and Helena get something to eat, Jude comes across her father’s photographs of his comrades, and other memorabilia. She envisions the final fire fight that her Dad valiantly fought to come home to her, a newborn baby girl. However, the fire fight never truly ended. Throughout his life he continued battling with vivid memories in the aftermath. He could not entirely uproot their occupation. Like those suffering today from PTSD, his flayed emotions and unaccountably tortured memories plagued him. And sometimes his inner warfare to expiate guilt, tragedy, and loss harmed Jude and her mother.
Only when Jude remembers her Dad’s tape recording about loving her, does she achieve a turning point within herself. She finally accepts the responsibility of what she meant to her Dad. She acknowledges that she was the reason why he made it back home. Moreover, the hope of seeing her and loving her elicited meaning for Collins. It breathed strength of purpose into a man who could have died like his fellow warriors. But instead, because of Ski’s sacrifice, and his own will, he determined to live and return home. There, he made a life for himself and his family, despite his brokenness.
After the Viet Nam War ended, as a country we resolved to learn hard lessons. We ended the draft and discontinued imperialistic combat involvement on a broad scale. Nevertheless, political leaders became surreptitious in the pursuit of war’s treasure, money. Then a golden opportunity presented itself fourteen years later with the conceptualized “War on Terror.” Thus, the ongoing war in the Middle East abides today.
As returning wounded warriors reel from PTSD, the number of suicides continues to augment. Veterans Affairs estimates that the number of 22 suicides a day has been under-reported. These results include Viet Nam vets. However, full accounting for the vets returning from the Middle East remains opaque. Many vets have chosen self-annihilation over self-validation. Why?
Alone, often with insufficient help, they face the daily struggle to adapt to civilian life and normalize with family. However, the residual memories of blood, fire and chaos remain the sticking points which must be worked through and resolved. The fortunate soldier recognizes this imperative and deals with such horrors which never fully dissipate. It does not help knowing that wars like the Viet Nam War and today’s wars in the Middle East have little rational justification except to enrich defense contractors, the lords of war. Resultantly, the soldiers who become cannon fodder yet manage to survive, must struggle to create their own private meaning for themselves. If they overcome, they leave a legacy which loved ones may embrace when the soldier’s long haul of suffering concludes.
In its themes and issues Occupied Territories dovetails with our current war and all wars past and present. When country fights country, the brutal propaganda to “create” an enemy manifests genocidal inhumanity. With the exception of WWII, politicians’ inability to justify the spilt precious blood of soldiers and civilians rankles. Occupied Territories clearly makes this point. The play inflames with revelations that there is no “good” or moral war, and this seems especially so for those vets who must daily fight for their sanity. To live amongst a family and civilian population that has no conception of the blood, fire, and chaos they experienced, vets feel alien and isolated. Occupied Territories chronicles these powerful issues and viscerally identifies what vets face with a harrowing, stark reality.
Kudos to to the writers, director, cast, artists (choreographer) and designers (lighting, sound, original music), for pulling this production into the heavens and plummeting it into sheer hell. It is unforgettable. Would that we learn from its anti-war, pro-humanity themes. Occupied Territories runs with no intermission for 90 minutes at 59E59 Theaters (59E59th St.) in New York City. See it before it closes on 5 November. It’s too superior to miss.