Four women stand at chairs on a bare stage, clad in military garb. For the next 60 minutes, these women veterans will speak at length about their respective journeys, from deciding to enlist to the surreal experience of returning home. This is In Our Own Voice: Women Veterans Tell Their Stories, appearing at the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity in the modest downstairs theatre at Tom Noonan’s Paradise Factory in the East Village.
For all of the interesting content present in this show, the way it is staged often falls flat: one can only be intrigued by standing and talking in various formations for so long. An interesting directorial choice I observed was that the piece often wavered in between no-fourth-wall monologuing and sometimes-clunky scenes, where one woman remained her character and the others assumed temporary personas such as mother or father. While I always find it a delight watching women demonstrate the ability to tell stories involving men without needing actual men onstage, the monologue form showed itself to be consistently more successful.
The actresses give generally solid performances (with special note to Katrina Perkins and Caitlin Kless) but due to the sparseness of the piece’s staging, too often did the bulk of the work end up on their shoulders. While the spoken content is typically strong, in a piece of theatre specifically—a form that engages staging, design, performance, and written/generated texts to tell a story—having one particularly-effective aspect can sometimes have the unfortunate result of making the other parts (namely the barely-noticeable projections and confusingly-few patriotic sound cues) appear glaringly weak.
On several occasions I found the piece dipped its toes into hard-hitting subjects but hesitated to go to go any further. One woman spoke of coming out as queer to her father by telling him she was in love with a woman, and at the end speaks about a husband in such a matter-of-fact way that I almost felt like the creators forgot what they set up in the beginning. Another monologue about an instance of sexual assault was accompanied by the woman explaining how this was a rape she could not blame herself for, unlike the times she “laughed too loudly or drank too much.” However, since this piece was based off of interviews conducted with actual women veterans, it appeared moreso that these are simply the prevailing mindsets of many of these women rather than an unwillingness from the creators to deal with such subjects. Even so, I did find myself especially wishing there had been more representation than was present in the uniformly white cast.
An important word choice I have been careful to maintain when writing this piece is referring to these people as “women,” not “females.” While referring to women as the sterile latter term can often be found in dark corners of the Internet frequented by fedoras, from this piece I learned that it is also a tactic used by military men to degrade their counterparts: a particularly-memorable and chilling moment revolved around the women recalling how they would be told “Don’t say ‘girl,’ say ‘female.’ Don’t say ‘male,’ say ‘man.’”
The most affecting part of In Our Own Voice was when it explored what it was like for these women to assimilate back into society. Obviously it doesn’t seem easy, but I never knew quite how complicated it could be, and how much shame is associated with having everyday activities become troublesome tasks. They spoke of not wanting to see mental health experts, avoiding disclosing certain information to friends who would never truly understand, and in one case relapsing into addictions once the distraction of being away had ceased. Of course, one knows such things superficially to be true, but I found it important to be reminded that just because war has ended in one location does not mean war in the mind has as well.
Ultimately, I left the theatre dissatisfied but intrigued. Despite my dissatisfaction, it’s undeniable that these are stories I rarely see onstage, much less in a theatre piece written, directed, and performed by a team of all women. Perhaps it wasn’t a work of artistic genius, but the more these topics are shown to audiences, the more those audiences will get to talking, and from there it is my hope that work delving deeper into such subjects can continue to be made.
In Our Own Voice: Women Veterans Tell Their Stories, written by Beverley Coyle, directed by Colleen Britton, and featuring Caitlin Kless, Eirinn McGuiness, Katrina Perkins and Sionain Kuhner ran until July 11 at Planet Connections Theatre Festivity at The Paradise Factory, 64 East 4th Street.
Photos of Caitlin Kless, Eirinn McGuiness and Sionain Kuhner by Colleen Britton, photo of Katrina Perkins by Joshua Merkle.