Theater B at 59E59 Theaters has been reconfigured by production designer Brian MacDevitt and scenic designer Andrew Cohen so that the audience sits in a semi-circle at one end of the space. On the upstage end of the venue is a portion of a cluttered basement with a staircase to the first floor on a raised platform. Just in front of the audience is an empty space covered from above by foliage which represents the jungles of Vietnam. About two-thirds of the way through the play the clearly defined line between the two spaces dissolves and the two become one, as daughter Jude relives her father’s experiences.
While the guests are still eating upstairs, sisters Jude, age 45, and Helena, 42, meet in their father’s basement after his funeral. Jude is on a two day pass from the rehab center where she is supposedly recovering from addiction to drugs. Her daughter Alex who is staying with her Aunt Helena is seeing her mother out of the clinic for the first time in months. Helena and her husband Rick are childless but have done very well and are footing the bill for Jude’s rehab. Jude blames her addiction on her cold, unfeeling father. A more compassionate Helena knows he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder though she admits it might have been better if he had not remained silent about his war experiences.
When Helena leaves to drive Alex to a friend’s house, Jude is left alone to examine her father’s collection and his memories of his time as a soldier. The play then takes us to Vietnam on Collins’ tenth day replacing a medic in a combat platoon though he is not a medic. We do not know for quite a while that he is shortly to become Jude’s father. As a rookie, he is hazed by the other soldiers particularly the super-macho Ski and he has to learn about surviving in the jungle. Food, sex and family become the topics of conversation as the platoon awaits a helicopter drop of supplies which are running low. Ultimately, Jude finds the photographs that her father took in Vietnam while Collins experiences the horrors of war.
Seen in the cramped basement set, the actresses (Bannon as Jude, Kelley Rae O’Donnell as Helena, and Ciela Elliott as Alex) are very mannered, giving soap opera-like performances. The men are better but as they are dressed by Kelsey Hunt pretty much the same way in Rob Siler’s dim lighting, most of them blur as simply a chorus of voices. As Private First Class Stephen Collins, Cody Robinson (a holdover from the Washington production) is convincing as the fresh, nervous recruit who almost falls for all of the teasing by the others.
Donte Bonner is heroic as the level-headed platoon sergeant known as Ace. Scott Thomas gives a big performance as the hot-blooded and fearless Ski who cannot control either his temper or his tongue. Thony Mena is notable as a Puerto Rican soldier quick to take offense. In an unusual choreographed scene, while Jude looks through her father’s slides, Nile Harris’ Hawk and Nate Yaffe’s Hardcore wrestle, tease, laugh, leap and toss each other into the air. Kelly Maxner is responsible for the vigorous and high-powered choreography. Mathew M. Nielsen’s original music and sound design contribute appreciable to the production.
While Occupied Territories is engrossing mostly for its staging which brings the action almost into the audience’s laps, it becomes predictable once each event or topic is raised. The use of a family beset by drug addiction and distant parents is overly tired without offering a new slant on these familiar topics. The Vietnam scenes while not so prevalent on our stages have certainly become a cliché of action movies. Occupied Territories is an ambitious but unsatisfying drama, which attempts to dramatize the problem of PTSD by showing the results on the family years later.
Occupied Territories (through November 5, 2017)
Theater Alliance of Washington, DC and Available Potential Enterprises Ltd
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission