A rape being swept under the carpet in the U.S. Marine Corps is buried within a story that simultaneously champions the triumphs and bonds of women in the military in “Queens For A Year,” which is in the last week of its run at Hartford Stage.
Mary Bacon opens the show as religious, anti-killing midwife Mae Walker giving strenuous, tense and seemingly reluctant testimony about a lieutenant to a faceless but demanding voice played from the sound booth, likely a military or police official of some kind. When asked to tell the story of what happened, she goes into a Greek mythological tale about a girl taken by Poseidon.
So a mythical, fictional tale opens our story, which is as layered as the ocean with darkness looming in the deep. Layer upon layer is peeled back to ultimately reveal secrets some of the characters are hiding. The meat of the play, set in 2007, is flashbacks as the plot bounces back and forth between the home of 2nd Lt. Molly Solinas’ (Vanessa R. Butler) great grandmother in rural Southern Virginia and Camp Lejeune in Iraq where Solinas and PFC Amanda Lewis (Sarah Nicole Deaver) were based.
Lt. Solinas brings lower-ranking PFC Lewis to her relatives’ home, introducing her as a friend to grandmother Gunny Molly Walker (Charlotte Maier), aunt Lucy Walker (Heidi Armbruster) and great grandmother Lucy “Grandma Lu” MacGregor (Alice Cannon). She says they are on a vacation to spend a few days off base.
But there is something the girls aren’t telling us. They are hiding from someone after something that happened.
Butler commands the stage both physically and in the serious, military tone of her character. She presents a conflicted woman who values honor and protocol, but who has contradictory emotions circulating underneath. Even though we don’t always know what she has going on in her head, her expressions tell us she has hidden and protective motivations and that she is strong as she fights to suppress them without worrying her family and Lewis.
Deaver presents a candid, likable Lewis who isn’t perfect and has had her share of struggles, but who is fighting for her rights and justice despite her fears. The scene where she is tasked with frisking an Iraqi woman crossing a border she’s assigned to with her troops is very moving. Even though the two women don’t speak the same language, Lewis’s female identity and demeanor puts the Iraqi woman at ease and allows the two to connect. And when Lewis breaks down, the Iraqi woman in turn comforts her. While male soldiers make fun of Lewis for being weak, it’s her femininity that makes her most suitable for that role.
Maier presents a tough yet wise-cracking motherly figure to the girls and Armbruster is the comic relief as the chipper, gay aunt who was kicked out of the military for “mental illness.” Cannon also has her humorous moments as an elderly veteran losing her memory but who has not lost one bit of her spunk. She got a lot of laughs for yelling out an unexpected expletive.
As Lewis cozies up to the lieutenant’s family, swapping stories about growing up and serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Solinas seems to sit back on guard in ultimate protective mode. But from what?
Through flashbacks, we learn Lewis, who is not under the command of Solinas, was sexually assaulted by a male officer of superior rank.
The flashbacks are interspersed with military chants, often voiced by women. But they get more and more gruesome and graphic as the show goes on, including a very sexual and profane one uttered by a male cast member that drew many gasps from last Wednesday’s mostly senior matinee audience.
After being raped, Lewis turns to Solinas for advice. Solinas seeks counsel from a female superior. The picture painted to her is grim and disturbing. She is advised not to get involved because it will tarnish her career and lead to no consequences for the perpetrators of the rape as they possibly continue to rise in the ranks. However, wanting to help Lewis, she goes against that advice and Lewis files a complaint. When a female officer questions her in military court, her line of questioning twists Lewis’s complaint into non-credible fog and nothing is done. However, as Solinas’s name is dragged into it as her mentor, the main perpetrator delivers her a death threat for the both of them in a cringe-worthy way. So, both of them are sent on the run.
As they hide out, not revealing the truth to the lieutenant’s family, Solinas forms her own secret plan to smoke out the bad guy and face him on civilian ground, leading to deadly consequences. Their own home turns into a battlefield that forces the girls to reveal their secret and forces the soldiers and veterans to confront a demon lurking within the very Marines they are very proud to have served.
Just before the storm hits, Mae – estranged from her family – arrives to see her daughter upon finding out the Marines are looking for her and the reunion uncovers dark secrets from the family’s past. Her story about Poseidon from the beginning of the play resurfaces and we hear a war-torn tale of trickery and the destruction of femininity in battle. So, when when we are brought full circle back to the interrogation room, the Greek myth makes more sense. It also seems to symbolize rape in the military as an almost mythical and taboo subject. Mythical in that we hear about it, but that it’s not often talked about like the stuff of legends. But it is also bitter truth just as the reality buried within a mythological story meant to teach a lesson.
And what is the lesson of this story? Perhaps it’s that the secret is buried beneath the original story we’re told, swept under the carpet. Perhaps it’s that these kinds of stories don’t have happy endings event when the secret is brought to light. Perhaps it’s that, like the circular form of the story, this is a problem that keeps circling and circling without any end in sight. Or perhaps it’s that the grim reality that more needs to be done to protect and not blame and target the victims.
Whatever the takeaway is, this play makes you think. And that alone is a victory.
The two ensemble members in the show – Jamie Rezanour and Mat Hostetler – brought more depth the the story, appearing as multiple characters in the flashback scenes.
Cpl. Brianna Morgan Maldonado (USMC, Ret.) served as a U.S. Marine Corps Advisor for the show.
Lucie Tiberghien directed the T.D. Mitchell play, Victoria Deiorio wrote original music and designed the sound, Greg Webster served as fight director, Robert H. Davis was the dialect coach, Beth Goldenberg designed the costumes and Robert Perry did the lighting design.
The show runs through Sunday, Oct. 2 with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
More information on the production and purchasing tickets is available at http://www.hartfordstage.org or by calling the box office at 860-527-5151. Tickets start at $25.