Review: 'Queens for a Year' at Hartford Stage

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

“If we remain ignorant of our history, we’re lost. –All. Is. Lost. Only shame remains, and lashing out; an eye for an eye and an I for an I; no justice, only the unquenchable thirst for retribution, repeating the same mistakes over and over and…” Mae in ‘Queens for a Year’ by T.D. Mitchell

Hartford, CT The 2016-2017 season at Hartford Stage opens with a world premiere of a play written by T.D. Mitchell entitled ‘Queens for a Year.’ Originally developed as part of the Center Theatre Group’s new play program, the play was featured at the Bay Area Playwrights Festival before receiving a workshop at Hartford Stage in March of last year. 

‘Queens for a Year’ tells the riveting story of two women Marines in 2007 that struggle to find justice in a system weighted against them. One is Molly, a young, newly minted officer in the Corps, and the other is Amanda, a young enlisted woman. Together they arrive at the farmhouse of the officer’s grandmother in southern Virginia. Her family proudly boasts five generations of female Marines and four of them gather for what begins as a celebration of women’s history and grit. In flashbacks, it is revealed that their visit is actually a flight from immediate danger that is within the violent, male-entrenched culture that they have all so desperately fought to be a part of. 

In fact, the title refers to a derogatory term for a female soldier or Marine that is serving her overseas tour of duty year. The implication is that even a homely female gets away with slacking off and being treated as a queen due to the lack of available women in a culture and profession of heterosexual men. Throughout the two acts, cadences, or call-and-response “work songs,” punctuate the action. All the cadences in the play are actual ones used in military training, although (not surprisingly) not all are officially sanctioned. All of them were degrading, and a few were cringe-worthy; I told myself that they added to the authenticity of this difficult story.

The cast of eight Equity actors, all but one in their Hartford Stage debut, pulls the audience into the drama with just a handful of light moments.  Vanessa R. Butler stars as 2nd Lt. Molly Solinas and brings a gritty integrity to the challenging role. The younger PFC Amanda Lewis is stunningly brought to life by Sarah Nicole Deaver. 

Molly’s mother is Mae Walker, a civilian midwife with a strong faith. Mary Bacon as Mae opens the play then returns in the middle of the second act; the actress does well as the only major character that was never in the military. Charlotte Maier plays Gunny Molly Walker, the grandmother of the younger Molly who is always referred to as “Gunny.” Heidi Armbruster shines as Molly’s aunt Lucy who helps care for Lucy “Grandma Lu” MacGregor, the elderly matriarch of the family whose health and mind is failing. Alice Cannon (‘Imaginary Invalid’ at Hartford Stage) plays the retired Marine with spunk. 

Jamie Rezanour is credited as the female ensemble and Mat Hostetler as the Male Ensemble, but I would argue that the amount and variety of the roles they played qualifies them both as ensemble in name only. Ms. Rezanour had to master several foreign tongues and transform herself into many characters, both military and civilian and she did so easily. Mr. Hostetler’s male characters are hard to like because of his strong acting. 

Cpl. Brianna Morgan Maldonado (USMC, Ret.) served as US Marine Corps Advisor to ensure authenticity and Robert H. Davis was dialect coach with Sarab Al Ani as the Arabic language advisor. Daniel Conway designed the deceptively simple set that the director Lucie Tiberghien used perfectly. Robert Perry lit the Hartford stage with realism. The costumes designed by Beth Goldenberg include crisp uniforms as well as street clothes and Jodi Stone provided the wig design. Associate Artistic Director Elizabeth Williamson served as dramaturg for this production. 

I am always struck with the professional level that both plays and musicals attain at Hartford Stage. The look is modern and the productions are consistently seamless, and this piece is no exception. I found the play to be a thoroughly riveting tale that shed a sometimes harsh light on the experience of women in the military. Recent military history is woven in, as is Greek mythology, and it all somehow works. 

‘Queens for a Year’ runs through the matinee on October 2, 2016, and the theater offers both open captioned performances and an audio described performance on specific dates. 

Pictured: L-R: Charlotte Maier, Vanessa R Butler, Heidi Armbruster, Alice Cannon in uniform in 'Queens for a Year' Photo byT. Charles Erickson