Monday, September 19, 2016

Marines in Overdrive: Queens for a Year

Jamie Rezanour and Sarah Nicole Deaver in Queens for a Year at Connecticut's Hartford Stage. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Queens for a Year, the ironic title of T.D. Mitchell’s new play at Hartford Stage, is a pejorative Marine Corps term for female Marines serving their year-long overseas tour: the idea is that because women are so rare in the service, they get special treatment. The play, set in 2007 and inspired by the case in that year of Lance Corporal Maria Lauterbach, who was murdered by a male Marine she accused of raping her, reveals the true situation. At one point PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver) – whose mentor, 2nd Lieutenant Molly Salinas (Vanessa R. Butler), has taken her home to her family to remove them both from the officer Lewis has made a complaint against – explains that all female Marines are relegated by the men in the Corps to one of three categories. Any woman who “fraternizes” willingly or is forced to have sex is a slut; if she refuses and manages somehow to stand her ground, she’s either a dyke or a bitch. If she’s raped and files a complaint, then the brass consider her a problem and look around for reasons to disregard it: her sexual history, her record of using alcohol, the impreciseness of her narrative. (Lewis’ word is doubted because she lost her virginity at fourteen and because she didn’t notice whether the penis that was being shoved down her throat was circumcised or not.) Female officers are no more likely than male ones to stand in her corner: the captain (Jamie Rezanour) Salinas consults for advice warns her to keep her distance from Lewis because associating with her is sure to undermine Molly’s chances for promotion.

This is strong material that hasn’t been dramatized before. Pity Mitchell didn’t turn it into a better play. Molly is a fifth-generation woman soldier: her great-great-grandmother was in the Armed Forces during World War I, her grandmother, known as “Grandma Lu” (Alice Cannon), was in the Second World War, and her grandmother (Charlotte Maier) and Aunt Lucy (Heidi Armbruster) both served. The only naysayer in the family is her mother, Mae (Mary Bacon), a devout Christian midwife whose objections to her daughter’s joining up have made her persona non grata in her own mother’s Virginian farmhouse, where Grandma Lu and Lucy both reside. (Molly’s father is out of the picture.) Amanda, who comes from a troubled background, falls quickly in love with her mentor’s family, but Mitchell and the director, Lucie Tiberghien, treat them like figures in a cartoon – especially pixilated Grandma Lu and her daughter, who acts like a drill sergeant and insists on being called “Gunny” around the house. (Seriously?) These two are about as close to reality as the Beverly Hillbillies.

Charlotte Maier in Queens for a Year. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Mitchell seems to have constructed the play according to a checklist. Her play takes in PTSD, homosexuality in the military, even Bush’s foreign policy. Mae, who eventually shows up at the farmhouse in search of her daughter, refuses to go down to the cellar because her father shot himself there – though Gunny, ashamed of his “weakness,” kept the truth from her younger daughter, Lucy, who was deployed at the time. Molly is proud of her military accomplishments, but Mitchell doesn’t settle for a portrait of women Marines as hard-working soldiers whose virtues are cruelly derided by their male comrades. When Amanda’s rapist shows up drunk and armed in Gunny’s driveway, Molly and Amanda defend the place like Dustin Hoffman in Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and clearly we’re intended to see their behavior as the insane result of their Marine training.

Under Tiberghien’s direction, the cast acts too vigorously. (It doesn’t help that the staging doesn’t feel organic, though Daniel Conway has designed a varied and effective set.) The only actor who is convincing in every scene is Butler: she gives an emotionally detailed, moment-to-moment performance that feels entirely grounded. Another way to put it is that Butler alone overcomes the traps in Mitchell’s dialogue, which is both highly self-conscious and loaded down with military clich├ęs. Mitchell uses authentic Marine Corps cadences to bridge scenes, and they’re shockingly violent and misogynistic. They carry more power than anything else in the script.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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