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Occupied Territories

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 26, 2017


Donte Bonner and Scott Thomas
Photo by Colin Hovde

If you sat glued to the television during the 18 hours of Ken Burns's documentary series "The Vietnam War," you still did not get the full story of the impact on many of the U. S. soldiers who returned home with intact bodies but shattered psyches. The consequences of that national nightmare reverberate through three generations of the family depicted in the heart-stopping production of Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner's Occupied Territories at 59E59 Theaters. Be warned: It is harrowing.

The intensity is due in large part to the way it has been staged (Mollye Maxner also directs). The audience nearly encircles the performance space, and much of the action takes place in Vietnam, where a platoon of soldiers is in full battle mode, literally inches from where you are sitting. You also are surrounded by Mathew M. Nielson's shattering sound design that incorporates realistic gunfire, the thwapping of helicopter rotors, and the approach of soldiers on the march.

The action in the war zone is interspersed with a framing story about the two daughters and the granddaughter of one of the men. Their father has died, 45 years after serving a little under a year in Vietnam. The two sisters and the young girl are in the basement of the family home, going through boxes of memorabilia, including photos and other items from the war they had never seen before. The oldest daughter, Jude (played by co-writer Nancy Bannon) is on a two-day pass from a drug rehabilitation facility, and it is she who has been most affected by her upbringing by a father who was distant, unknowable, and frightening. "He duct taped mom's mouth and hands," she reminds her sister Helena (Kelley Rae O'Donnell), who wants only to remember the more pleasant times of their childhood.

This frame is not what sustains the play, however; it serves mainly to introduce the scenes in Vietnam. This is where we will uncover what it is that irreparably damaged the father, the naïve 18-year-old recruit the other soldiers call "Cornbread" (Cody Robinson). The bulk of the play is focused on the platoon of men, whom we get to know individually and collectively, along with their quirks, the ways they annoy one another, their camaraderie, their heroism. These are traits we've seen portrayed in any number of war movies. But the most compelling and revealing moments are those where panic and rage and cruelty grab hold of the men, when they are at their most vulnerable and where their nerves are stretched to the breaking point. These frightening and incredibly honest times tell us more about the source of the unrelenting damage than any of those other clichés of war.

For Jude, at least, that damage has been like a powerful and straight-flying arrow, first piercing their father, then extending its reach to include their mother, then pulling Jude into her addiction, and also harming Alex (Ciela Elliott) by forcing her to live in Jude's highly unpredictable world. But what sticks is something she tells Helena their father said to her when she was nine. "He looked me in the eye at the fucking dinner table and told me, ‘Jude, this family stuff is not real love. Real love is between soldiers fighting for each other's lives.'"

Of course she is devastated. But what she does not understand is that the saving of lives was rarely about the obvious acts that we call "heroic." What the men do for one another is to protect them from themselves. That's what "Cornbread" bore witness to, beyond the horrible acts of war, those times when his brothers-in-arms collapsed in on themselves yet found the compassion and strength to rescue one another. This bound him into a pact of love that he could never share with anyone else, a secret understanding about human nature that ultimately destroyed his own life and wreaked harm on his family long after his tour of duty ended.

Kudos must extend to all involved in this remarkable play, with a special salute to the actors who portray the soldiers with such powerful conviction. In addition to Cody Robinson as "Cornbread," they are Diego Aguirre, Donte Bonner, Nile Harris, Thony Mena, Scott Thomas, and Nate Yaffe. Occupied Territories is a revelatory work, both in its conception and in its delivery. Seeing it in the intimate setting in one of the small venues at 59E59 is a blistering theatrical experience, one that will be hard to shake off for a very long time.


Occupied Territories
Through November 5
59E59 Theater B, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral


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