‘Occupied Territories’ bridges the gap between veterans and civilians

A father, a daughter, and their real-life experience with the intergenerational effects of war trauma inspired the play.

Actors perform Occupied Territories. —C. Stanley Photography

It was 1969, and Steve Maxner was in a concrete bunker in Vietnam, witnessing his daughter’s birth for the first time on videotape. Less than 300 yards away, helicopters were circling Vietnamese troops, raining down rockets and minigun fire, irradiating the sky with flares. Mr. Maxner, huddled in the relative safety of the firebase with his friends, listened to his daughter’s cries. “This is wonderful, this is new life,” he thought. A short distance through the jungle, Vietnamese lives were ending. He felt good about it. As they fell, Mr. Maxner’s chances of getting home to meet his new daughter improved. “That type of experience is hard to put together,” Mr. Maxner, who now lives in West Tisbury, said in a recent interview with The Times. “Those conflicts maybe aren’t answerable.”

These paradoxical experiences are difficult to explain, especially to civilians who have never lived through the complexities of war — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about them. “Occupied Territories,” an awardwinning play coming to the Island through Martha’s Vineyard Community Services next week, aims to facilitate the conversation between veterans and civilians. The play is directed and co-written by Mr. Maxner’s daughter, Mollye Maxner.

“Occupied Territories” is the story of a 45-year-old woman who ventures into her family’s basement to sort through her father’s belongings after his death. In the process, she uncovers his past in Vietnam, which the audience witnesses through scenes flashing back to 1967, when the father is 19 years old. Over the course of the play, the two worlds intersect, but the father figure remains frozen in 1967. There is no homecoming, no scenes of the father-daughter interaction. The play shows a chronological gulf in their relationship.

“It’s that gulf of not knowing, not communicating, that’s really at the heart of it,” Ms. Maxner told The Times. “The piece raises a lot of questions about the intergenerational effects of war trauma.” While the plot is not necessarily autobiographical, Ms. Maxner admits, “A lot of it comes from my own experience.”

“She knows firsthand what it’s like to live with somebody who has been involved in a war and dealt with the consequences of war trauma,” Mr. Maxner said. “When I returned from Vietnam, I was very much isolated from the general world as well as my family.” The family was living in Northampton, where Mr. Maxner retreated to the house’s small cellar, barely large enough for his mattress. “It was difficult. I didn’t know what was going on, and I wasn’t really as present as a father should be,” Mr. Maxner said. “I think one of the consequences of my experience was it was directly experienced by my kids.”

In his most recent book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging,” Sebastian Junger theorizes that many veterans struggle with adjustment upon homecoming not due solely to trauma, but because of a cultural divide between life at war and modern society in the United States. Soldiers are exposed to a lifestyle, situations, and relationships which most civilians never experience. Take the notion of brotherhood, for instance.

In “Occupied Territories,” the daughter uncovers a photo of her father with his arm around another soldier. She realizes that the soldier in the photo shared a bond with her father she never will. “That’s something we’ll never experience as civilians,” Ms. Maxner said. “That particular kind of connection, where you will truly put your body in front of someone else’s, that’s not the kind of life we live day to day. The piece explores that.”

Mr. Maxner elaborated on the importance of brotherhood in the military. “There’s a sacredness to that whole notion of brothers in arms that’s difficult to communicate but tremendously powerful,” he said.

Because such concepts are difficult to explain, the play often communicates with its audience through media other than dialogue — specifically, music and movement. “The piece has to take a leap from reality into something more imagistic,” Ms. Maxner said. “Music speaks to us differently than words. Sound, movement, images speak differently. Being able to reach people more fully, we found this form started to crack open our ability to experience the empathy that comes up.”

The play has engendered empathy, for the audiences and the production team alike. “Occupied Territories” has already made a name for itself in the theater world, securing six Helen Hayes nominations in May, but the most valuable feedback has come from veterans and their families, who participated in “talkbacks” after the performances.

“One Vietnam veteran who had come to the play with his daughter wrote to us the night after and said on his drive home, he spoke to her about things that he hadn’t said to anyone in 45 years,” Ms. Maxner said. “Somehow the piece — because it’s so much about the dialogue and the lack of dialogue between this father and daughter — allowed that conversation to begin.”

The Maxners said Mollye’s work on “Occupied Territories” has developed their own relationship positively. “It changed me in such a vast way that I can’t really remember who I was before,” Ms. Maxner said. As she wrote and directed, she began to see things through a soldier’s point of view. “Once I started to do that, I had vastly more compassion and understanding; my perspective shifted in a huge way. I feel like I’m much more able to engage in conversation because I’m not afraid of the material.”

Mr. Maxner responded well to his daughter’s receptivity. “I’m more inclined to talk to her about Vietnam experiences, about the feelings, because it seems like she is more open to understanding that phenomena, when it’s usually very hard to understand for civilians, or people who haven’t been involved, to really grasp the intensity and the depth of it. I’m more comfortable in sharing. And I don’t feel like I have to hold onto some of the bad or hard things. I feel more comfortable to let them out.”

Mr. Maxner has not yet seen the play. He has been waiting for the Vineyard performance, partially for convenience, and partially because his emotions regarding the content are so complex. “I’m anxious about seeing it,” Mr. Maxner said. “Reflecting on Vietnam is still difficult for me. I still go to counseling, and I still have flashbacks. It’s difficult, oftentimes, living with that experience. I’m not sure how I’m going to respond to it, but I’m very much looking forward to being a part of it.”

Although he is anxious, Mr. Maxner said he is proud of his daughter for bringing healing to veterans and their families. “I’m sure there are veterans right now living in small bunkers in their cellar. And they are probably 24 years old. I think there are a number of veterans who can benefit from an experience like this, which will hopefully open us all up more to talk more freely, and let a little light in.”

“This is not just a Vietnam piece,” Ms. Maxner added. “This is a piece for everyone, military and civilian. It’s about the dialogue that is necessary for us to move on.”

“Occupied Territories”: Public performances Friday, August 5, at 8 pm, and Saturday, August 6 at 8 pm, followed by “talkback” sessions. American Legion, Edgartown. Tickets are $35. Event sponsor tickets are $500, and include a VIP dress-rehearsal performance on Monday, August 1 at 8 pm.

The Martha’s Vineyard Community Services Veterans Outreach Program will also host special performances for veterans and their families. For tickets and more information, visit mvcommunityservices.com.

MVCS is seeking partners to provide funding in support of the production of Occupied Territories. Those interested in helping fund this production are asked to contact Jan Hatchard at 508‐693‐7900×229.