America has never really faced the realities of the Vietnam War. The U.S. lost, period. The war was wrong, period. For those who served it was a disaster. It was also hell for families of the fallen. Some believe that those who got us into it deserve punishment. “Occupied Territories,” written by Nancy Bannon and Mollye Maxner, with Maxner also directing, attempts to deal with some of the issues unleashed by the war, both on the home front and on the battlefield. The staging ambitiously connects both.
Part of the stage in the small theater space, with audience members seated against the walls on three sides, is a basement of a suburban house. (Andrew Cohen is scenic designer.) We meet two sisters, the older Jude, 45, played by co-author Bannon, is a drug-addicted mess of a single mom who has been through rehab. Her daughter, Alex, 15 (Ciela Elliott) has been staying with Helena, 42, Jude’s sister, who has her life together and is strongly portrayed by Kelley Rae O’Donnell.
What occupies them in the present moment, apart from sorting out personal problems, is the death of their father, Stephen, who served back in the Vietnam War when he was 18 years old, a part excellently acted in battlefield flashbacks by Cody Robinson, who in post-war years has had a rift with Jude, who was a newborn baby during the war. It is eve of the father’s funeral and the tension is high between the sisters. There is a box of photos and letters which Jude discovers in the basement that reflect Stephen’s Vietnam experiences, some of which are projected onto a sheet.
The genius of the play lies in the staging that connects the two time frames. Soldiers march into the playing area, joining in army chants, taking various lookout posts and eventually engaging with the enemy. An exceptionally poignant moment occurs when Stephen looks at a treasured picture of his newborn child.
While the blending of loudly presented military action and what is going on in the household all these years later is very clever, it also becomes awkward at times. Yet the issues in the tragedy persist as the drama progresses in all its scope. The staging is compelling, as audience members are made to come to grips with class issues that erupt among the troops, the futility of the war and the problems for loved ones left behind and persisting through the years. A supporting cast vividly portrays the soldiers and their individual personalities.
A viewer may be frequently shaken by what unravels, especially in the battlefield jungles of Vietnam. One feels for the men both as individuals and symbols of the larger picture whenever they seize the stage.
The authors have taken up the challenge of writing a meaningful play, and if the interaction doesn’t always work as smoothly as it should, the overall impact is dynamically and creatively there. At 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, For tickets: 212-279-4200 or at www.59e59.org. Reviewed October 26, 2017.