Off-Broadway Review: “Occupied Territories”
- OnStage Chief New York Theatre Critic / Outer Critics Circle
One of the territories occupied in Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner’s “Occupied Territories,” currently running at 59E59 Theaters, is the Jungle of Vietnam in 1967 during what seemed at the time to be an interminable and unpopular war. In the revival of the Theater Alliance’s 2015 play, that war appears as a haunting memory for Jude (Nancy Bannon) and her sister Helena (Kelley Rae O’Donnell) as, forty-five years later, they begin to sort out the contents of the family home basement following the funeral of their father Collins (Cody Robinson) and begin to grapple – in profoundly different ways – with the beginnings of the stages of grief.
Jude is “on leave” from rehab to attend her father’s funeral and recalls her father as a distant and abusive man who once looked her in the eye at the dinner table when she was nine years old and told her, “Jude, this family stuff is not real love. Real love is between soldiers fighting for each other’s lives. That’s love. Not this.” Jude’s memories of her father include screaming at his wife and family “for hours over nothing” and “duct taping mom’s mouth and hands.” Her father was in Vietnam for eleven months; however, he never shared much about his experiences there with his family.
Helena is more forgiving, relegating her father’s shortcomings to PTSD and “doing the best he could.” She is not as forgiving of Jude and her inability to break the cycle of addiction to drugs and care for her daughter Alex (Ciela Elliott) – despite Jude’s addiction perhaps related to her father’s dependence on prescription pain medication including Oxycontin, Valium, and Percoset which Helena claims Jude “loves.” “Occupied Territories” explores the intricies of Jude’s memory: those times when her memories of her father are reliable and the other times when the crevices of her sometimes-fallible memories need to be caressed with facts. As Jude reads journals and views slides, her “restored” memory is played out in a series of flashbacks.
Under Mollye Maxner’s thoughtful direction, the flashback scenes generated by memory and the basement’s detritus are both realistic and chilling. Spread beyond Andrew R. Cohen’s well-crafted basement set is the expansive Vietnam Jungle where the action of the war is played out just inches from the audience. The flashbacks include an electrifying dance sequence choreographed by Kelly Maxner that serves as an extended metaphor for Collins’s (and others’) experiences in the Vietnam Jungle and in war in general. The powerful pas de duex includes Hawk (Nile Harris) and Hardcore (Nate Yaffe) and covers the entire set with leaps and tosses that seem to defy possibility.
The remaining cast of soldiers are archetypes of what war demands of its participants and the actors portray their characters with a depth of sensitivity and metacognition: Diego Aguirre (Lucky); Donte Bonner (Ace); Thony Mena (Alvarez); and Scott Thomas (Ski) join Mr. Robinson, Mr. Harris, and Mr. Yaffe in rehearsing the intimacy of those who fight in wars together along with their fears, their dreams, and their deep sense of remorse.
One might wish the two worlds of basement and jungle – separated by time and space – were more directly connected; however, these at best are parallel worlds or worlds occupying different dimensions. Realism counterpoints fantasy and memory in “Occupied Territories” in sometimes complex and, perhaps, confusing ways. The overall effect, though challenging, is satisfactory and addresses more than Jude’s “reconciliation” with her father’s life in Vietnam. In addition to the Vietnam Jungle, the play addresses the occupied territories of the childhood home and its basement full of memories; of time and space; between characters; between characters and significant life events; and of addiction and collusion. These are territories not only worthy of exploration but territories necessary for survival, and healing, and redefining the meaning of love.
The cast features Diego Aguirre, Nancy Bannon, Donte Bonner, Ciela Elliott, Nile Harris, Thony Mena, Kelley Rae O'Donnell, Cody Robinson, Scott Thomas, and Nathan Jan Yaffe.
The design team includes Brian MacDevitt (production design); Andrew R. Cohen (set design); Rob Siler (lighting design); Mathew M. Nielsen (sound design and original music); and Kelsey Hunt (costume design). “Occupied Territories” is choreographed by Kelly Maxner. The Production Stage Manager is Kaelyn Kreicbergs. Production photos by Colin Hovde.
“Occupied Territories” runs for a limited engagement through Sunday, November 5. The performance schedule is Wednesday - Thursday at 7:15 PM, Friday at 8:15 PM; Saturday at 2:15 PM and 8:15 PM; and Sunday at 3:15 PM. Performances are at 59E59 Theaters (59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison Avenues). Single tickets are $35 ($24.50 for 59E59 Members). $20 discounted tickets are available to Veterans, Retired, and Active Military. To purchase tickets, call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit www.59e59.org. Running time is 90 minutes without an intermission.
Photo: Donte Bonner and Scott Thomas. Credit: Colin Hovde.