By Karen Isaacs
After seeing the world premiere of the disturbing new play, Queens for a Year, at Hartford Stage (through Sunday, Oct. 2), I thought of the country-western song, “Mama, Don’t Let Your Sons Grow Up to Be Cowboys” except I was changing the lyrics to “Mama, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Soldiers.”
This is a play about the sexualizing of women soldiers in today’s military. We have all read about the horrendous numbers of sexual assaults, rapes and harassment incidents our women in the military continue to face and the inadequacy of any safeguards or punishments. It is similar to what it was for all women 50 years ago who dared to report a rape or assault – intimidation, blame, punishment and scrutiny of their personal lives.
If it is really as bad as playwright T. D. Mitchell shows – and unfortunately simple research shows that it is — all citizens, not just women, should be marching and demanding change. Mitchell (a woman) is best known as a writer and script editor on the TV series Army Wives, but she has written other works with a military theme.
The play is about a military family but in this case it has been the women who have served. Told in flashback fashion, often fragmentary flashbacks, it is the story of 2nd Lt. Molly Solinas, a career Marine with deployments to Iraq under her belt. We see her in Iraq, in a classroom for officers and at her Grandmother’s house in Virginia.
The Lieutenant has returned to the house with PFC Amanda Lewis to escape what has happened to them both. The house is run by her grandmother Gunny Molly Walker (Charlotte Maier) who was a gunnery mate in the Marines during the Vietnam War. She runs the house with military precision maintaining the same routines and terminology that she learned in the service. Solinas’ great grandmother Lucy MacGregor also lives there; she served in WWII at a time when Marine women were taught how to apply make-up during basic training and were required to use a particular shade of red lipstick that matched the red on their uniforms. She too is not only proud but gung-ho though she is slowing losing her grip. Solinas’s aunt, Lucy Walker also resides in the house; she served in Desert Storm but received a dishonorable discharge because she was gay.
The only family member who escaped the military mentality is Solinas’ mother, Mae Walker, who is peace activist and midwife living separately. Solinas’ is the result of a relationship Mae had while in the Peace Corps in Central America. It is Mae who opens and closes the show.
Why have Solinas and Lewis left camp? In flashbacks and in conversations we see what happens to Lewis. A good Marine with a future in the military, she is young (just 20) and has been deployed. Something happens – we aren’t sure what but assume it is sexual in nature – and when she seeks medical assistance, the staff puts in a request for her transfer. Her Staff Sergeant is NOT happy and berates her; it is obvious that he doesn’t like women in the military. He suggests that she can become a PFC if she “improves his morale” – this has only one meaning.
The title, Queens for a Year, is defined in the program as a “derogatory term for a female soldier or Marine serving her overseas tour of duty year, implying that even an ‘ugly’ female gets away with slacking off and being unduly treated as a queen, due to the stark lack of available women in a culture and profession of heterosexual males.”
As Lewis explains to one of the older women, all women in the military are categorized as “sluts, bitches or dykes.” She goes on to say that one sexual encounter leads to the “slut” label and if the woman does not continue in that behavior, she is considered a “bitch.” She concludes that it better to adopt the “bitch” label from the very beginning.
Lewis turned to Solinas for support and advice, but a female Captain tells Solinas to stay out of it for the good of her career. When Lewis goes forward, a female officer cross examines her in a degrading way – asking questions about when she lost her virginity, if the Staff Sergeant was circumcised and when she doesn’t remember, implies she is lying.
Solinas has obviously testified for Lewis; the result was the Staff Sergeant has left her a graphic picture of what he will do to them both. That is why they have fled.
In the later parts of the second act, Solinas has lured the Staff Sergeant to find them; does
she hope for a reconciliation or something more? Unfortunately, her family who was not supposed to be home, comes back early so all are in the house when the unseen Sergeant drives up to the house, apparently drunk. I won’t spoil the ending of this confrontation.
The problem the play showcases is real. A Rand Corporation report in 2014, cited the Marines has having the highest percentage of reported sexual assaults of any branch of the service (over 8%). Even the military itself reported 8.4% of Marine women reported “unwanted sexual contact” which is how they term it.
This year, Time magazine reported on what happens to women – including officers – who do report sexual assaults. Medical documentation and other reports and paperwork often goes missing. The women are questioned about their sexual histories and are accused of having engaged in consensual sex and then changing their minds, of “acting inappropriately” and other offenses. They are often given general discharges which hinder them in civilian life. Even the appeal process of those discharges is Kafkaesque – the Navy, for example, assumes the discharge is correct unless the person can present “clear and substantial evidence” that the Navy was wrong. Few of the discharges are changed.
Senator Kirstin Gillibrand of New York has led the fight to force the military to be more accurate in their reporting, to improve the military justice system and to consider moving these cases from the military justice system into civilian courts. Her efforts and those of other senators and representatives have gone nowhere.
Director Lucie Tieberghien has assembled a fine production team and cast that completly inhabits the characters and situations. Daniel Conway’s two level scenic design moves us from barracks to Iraq to courtroom to Gunny’s Virginia home. Beth Goldenberg’s costumes are mostly military garb but she helps develop the characters of Solinas’ family through the costumes for Mae, Gunny, Lucy and Grandma Lu. The lighting by Robert Perry combined with the sound design by Victoria Deiorio sets us in the various place realistically, particularly in the climatic last scene.
The cast is excellent. Jamie Rezanour and Mat Hostetler play a variety of roles – the Captain, the prosecutor, the Staff Sergeant and more.
Each of the leading and supporting cast is excellent. Vanessa R. Butler as Solinas embodies
the professional soldier who has not totally lost her conscience but who thinks in terms of military strategy and solutions. You wonder what she could have been had she not been encultured into the military life by her grandmother, aunt and great-grandmother.
Sarah Nicole Deaver is PFC Amanda Lewis; her gestures, tones and expression range from the girl from the dysfunctional background trying to escape to the emerging strong woman. She shows you her vulnerability, uncertainty and the admiration she has for Salinas.
Charlotte Maier as Gunny gives us a woman who has been so consumed by her military experience that she cannot be a civilian. Mary Bacon is the softer, more loving and warm as Solinas’ mother. Both Heidi Armbruster as the aunt and Alice Cannon as the great grandmother also create real characters.
It is to the credit of the author, the director and the actors that we become emotionally connected to these characters.
Perhaps the most disturbing elements of the play are the military cadences that members of the cast chant. Throughout the play, these call and response “songs” become more and more graphic and misogynistic. According to a program note, these are actual cadences though not all are “officially sanctioned.”
After seeing this play, if you don’t want to demand that the military truly solve the problem of sexual assault and harassment which affects not just military women but military men and civilian women and men as well, you should examine your conscience.
Queens for a Year is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford through Sunday, Oct. 2. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.
This content is courtesy of Shore Publishing and zip06.com.