Second Opinion Review: 'Queens for a Year' at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

Great art should make a viewer feel.  The theater provides an opportunity for the individual to experience many things: joy, anger, fear, horror, elation, humiliation… the responses go on and on, and will differ from seat to seat. So runs the gamut of emotions for Hartford Stage’s season opener and world premiere, “Queens for a Year,” a play that takes on the American woman in the military and tackles it with depth and courage.

In late 2015, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that women would be allowed to serve in the front line positions of combat, including special operations, for the first time in American history. While some positions were opened up to women in 1993 (indirect combat positions), this is an overall inclusion policy, despite objections from some branches, especially the Marine Corps, who pointed to studies claiming that mixed-gender units performed worse than male-only units in combat situations. Secretary Carter basically ignored their resistance, saying that “[we] are a joint force, and I have decided to make a decision that applies to the entire force.” 

And it’s the Marines that the playwright, T.D. Mitchell, chooses to use in her world premiere play, “Queens for a Year.” Mitchell is no stranger to this subject matter; she had conducted many interviews with women who served in World War II and Vietnam she has written a number of plays utilizing the backdrop of the military, war, and its effects on those involved, most notably “Beyond the 17th Parallel” which takes on the story of veterans and the Vietnam War. Her portrayals were so convincing that she was tapped to be a writer for the Lifetime Channel’s TV show, “Army Wives.”  

In this play, we meet four generations of women who served in military and, as Mitchell put it in a recent phone interview with Linda Tuccio-Koonz of the CT Post, “who have all fought different battles, and yet are still fighting the same war – that war being how women are viewed in this culture, and in the context of our military history.” That culture – one where soldiers still shame one another by using derogatory feminine terms like “pussy” and “bitch” – is one of the most difficult to overcome for women placed in this environment. “The language of that culture is innately that female equals weakness, and putting women into that environment asks them to deny everything female about themselves, in order to succeed and even survive,” says Mitchell.  The play’s title comes from a military phrase talking about the “place” of women in the military when they first arrive, as somehow their position is one of power in terms of using their sexual wiles to get preferential treatment. The “year” part refers to its limited time offer, apparently: there is a price to pay for the “favored status.” 

The focus is on Molly (Vanessa R. Butler), a Marine Corps Officer, and a young Private, Amanda (Sarah Nicole Deaver). Molly and Amanda go to Molly’s grandmother Gunny’s (Charlotte Maier) house in Virginia on leave. Molly’s great-grandmother, Grandma Lu (Alice Cannon), a veteran of the World War II Women’s Marine Corps, and aunt Lucy (Heidi Armbruster), a Gulf War veteran who didn’t follow the rules of the “don’t ask don’t tell” doctrine, live there as well. Molly’s mother Mae (Mary Bacon), an ardent anti-military midwife, comes by the house, causing tensions to rise and secrets to be revealed: about why Molly and Amanda have come to Virginia and other deeper family secrets. These are the elements that the playwright doesn’t wanted divulged in any publication, so I won’t give any of those away here. 

I cannot overemphasize the power of this piece of theatre: it shines a white hot light on the plight of women trying to get past all of the impediments of a centuries-old boys club. It is wonderfully written: it is poignant and touching with elements of allegory flowing through it. It is also shocking and infuriating; a stark reminder that I should never join the military. What I find amazing is the ability to weave humor into a plot that is this intense. A moment to laugh is a welcome relief from some of the troublesome situations and dialogue of an extremely sexist culture. 

This is definitely an ensemble piece: the show cannot function without its mostly female cast, considering the storyline. I was so impressed with this cast; they had excellent dynamics and timing. Ms. Deaver’s portrayal of Amanda is multidimensional: full of youthful exuberance, anxiety, and fear, it felt like a true portrait of a young woman just starting out in the American armed forces fighting against a system stacked against her. Ms. Butler’s Molly is intense and stark with a façade that I thought would never crack (it barely does); her ability to focus is incredible yet there is an underlying struggle that the audience still sees as she fights against an establishment she grew up with. I loved the other character portrayals as well; they were so real I felt I had known them forever. I felt like I was part of a maternal circle of support, much like what Amanda feels. Like Amanda, I too wanted to never leave during the happier moments in Gunny’s house. Hats off to Jamie Rezanour and Mat Hostetler, who portrayed many of the villains in this play so well that I clenched my jaw in anger and frustration more times than I could count during their dialogue. 

I really liked the set design by Daniel Conway. I enjoy levels in staging as a way of transporting the audience to another setting. The magically materializing cellar stairs were especially effective since the cellar holds a significant secret in the lives of these women.   Direction by Lucy Tiberghien was also excellent, who utilized the set well with its different floors of action. Sound design by Victoria Deiorio included some very believable artillery fire and explosions that made me jump out of my seat. My only complaint was not being able to hear actors speaking offstage when they were supposed to be in another room in the house. 

The running allegory through this play is the story of Caenis, who becomes a male warrior (renamed Caeneus) after being granted a wish from Poseidon after he rapes her. Caeneus is eventually killed by the centaurs, who crush him to death in a pile of stones and tree trunks. This myth is an excellent parallel to these women’s stories: these women are fighting a war to retain their womanhood while working within the constraints of a historically masculine sphere; a sphere that is fighting them every step of the way. Secretary Carter does acknowledge the trials that face them with these new rules in terms of military combat: “…there still will be problems to fix and challenges to overcome. We shouldn’t diminish that.” 

Perhaps works of this nature can collectively serve to increase public awareness of the continuing cultural struggle faced by many who engage in the often thankless task of serving our country.  Ultimately, it is only public awareness and outcry that builds the consensus that effects change, and plays like these are frantic waves in hopes that someone will wave back. 

Photo: Jamie Rezanour, Sarah Nicole Deaver. Photo by T. Charles Erickson