Overfilling a wheel barrow almost inevitably leads to imbalance, a straining at the shafts to right the load. No doubt about the strain, but the contents might spill in unproductive ways. I had the sense, that of something heavy falling too uncontrolled, amid the noise and confusion of the climactic scene of Queens for a Year, the current production at The Hartford Stage. T.D. Mitchell’s topical exploration of sexual assault in the military, systemic sexism, and the experience of war carries heavy thematic burdens compellingly. But the dramatic structure at the play’s conclusion collapses under its weight. This, however, is an important play, beautifully acted and produced.
The work makes literal the “battle of the sexes,” as it explores the conflicts faced by women in battle. The title points to the focus of the play’s development: “Queens for a Year” is a derisive term for female marines in their first deployment in a combat zone. It refers to the supposed preferential treatment that their male corps counterparts believe they will receive. But the title is turned on its ironic head; the polysemic “queen” points to ambiguous privilege and confusion of gender roles. The resolution heightens the sense of violence wrought and violence righted but, to risk the cliché, through the “fog of war.” The two hours and a half hours spent at the Hartford Stage had moments of great theater, but the play is marred by a confusing climax, a function, I think, of the difficulty in blending a family drama and with predatory pursuit. Even though we strained at times to understand some speeches (especially when backs were turned to the audience), the cast of seven women and one man delivered remarkable performances. I was gripped throughout.
The year is 2007 and the theater of war is Iraq. Most of the dramatic action, however, takes place in the rural country home of Molly Solinas, a 2nd lieutenant, whose grandparents and great-grandmother were all marines. Her aunt living at home also served in the corps – but she was invalided out with what appears to have been PTSD. The family circle radiates from a center of military camaraderie. Strong Marine Corps ties underscore the idealism that motivates Molly in what will be her fatal attempt to protect a fellow soldier. The corps’ values and speech saturate the domestic lives of these women. Great-grandmother with her failing mental powers stands look-out in semi-comic defense of the home, a role that parodies her WWI service.
Amanda Lewis, a grunt who has served in Iraq, is the close companion of Lieutenant Solinas. Their arrival at the family house has a hectic energy that points to relief at escape. From whom or what they are escaping becomes the source of suspense. We discover fully what drives the two young women only late in the action. That deferral demands belated exposition at a time when action outruns necessary background knowledge. The heavy dramatic load falls and stuns, but not with clear revelation.
Impressionistic flash backs wonderfully realized through the use of a two tiered stage show us that Amanda has been raped by her immediate superior in Iraq, and that Molly Solinas has taken her to safety. We hear excerpts from the court marital trial of Amanda’s violator, we see her confront him and stand cowed claiming she will withdraw charges against him, and we hear him as he struts across the top tier of the set, singing an obscene marching song of sadistic conquest and delight in the infliction of pain.
The complications of the position of women in the military find great dramatic force in these scenes: just as the paradoxical devotion of aunt, grandmother (“Gunny”) and great-grandmother to the corps crescendos, we hear Amanda’s court testimony of multiple sexual assaults and the prosecutor’s easy deflection of blame from the attacker. Her examination (ironically, the prosecutor is a woman) destroys Amanda’s credibility, suggesting that she had been enticing enlisted troops and was seeking a quid-pro-quo, promotion for sex, from her superior.
There are powerful dramatic moments throughout the play: the military chants, the flash back to Solinas’s officer corps training, and her brilliant translation of tactical strategy from the language of the military briefing to the four-letter-word studded command to her peers put the woman’s dilemma clearly front and center stage. Male privilege, male traditions, and the complication of sex double and triple the burdens on a woman, especially in combat. Molly risks her career in an attempt to further Amanda’s case, despite warnings from supposedly sympathetic female superiors. Molly will have nothing to do with compromise. She will defend one of her own against the enemy within.
The scenes of domestic bravado, the women living by Halls of Montezuma themes and military command, are literally undercut when we discover that Gunny’s husband, the grandfather, the stalwart marine did not die of a heart attack, but shot himself in desperation, plagued by the memories of his war service. The stage trapdoor that opens to the cellar of the house is the site of his death.
Unfortunately, the climactic scene simply loses focus as the play rushes to its end. The revelation of the family secret, the increasing dismay of the family over Molly and Amanda’s plight, is further heightened by the arrival of Molly’s mother, a midwife, and clearly the true maternal presence in the midst of the militarized matriarchy. Just as the force of these complications is made dramatic, the audience has to take in the imminence of the threat that approaches. We even hear the recitation of an ancient Greek myth recording Poseidon’s rape of a mortal woman, a story that parallels the play’s development. The drunken rapist then arrives, determined to kill Amanda and Molly; they exit the house, armed, to make a final stand.
I think it fair to say, many in the audience left confused by the suddenness of the ending; perhaps they did not hear the rapid explanation of the motivation for the rapist’s attack. The clarity of the dialogue at this point was distorted by the noise of the sound effects. The play’s coda further distracted; Molly’s mother’s concluding words cause us to think that whole play is an enactment of her testimony to some investigative tribunal.
All of this said, I have no doubt that Queens for A Year is great theater. The play hits bluntly, but subtlety in the writing counteracts the bangs of explosion and obscene swearing. The audience has to face existential problems that are the outcome of war, gender roles, and the demand for equality. Its flawed ending cannot take away its powerful themes and insight.