Columnist John Paradis: ‘The Vietnam War was our eighth family member’

  • A scene from the play, “Occupied Territories,” co-written by Mollye Maxner. The play describes the challenges the Maxner family faced after her father, Steve, came home to Northampton from Vietnam in 1970. Readings from the play will take place July 26-27 in Northampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Published: 7/11/2019 4:00:14 PM

When Steve Maxner came home from Vietnam in 1970, he experienced significant emotional turmoil.

What he didn’t know or couldn’t comprehend at the time was the turmoil his family, his wife and five children were also experiencing. In their home on Vernon Street in Northampton, they were living through the hell of Vietnam.

“The Vietnam War was our eighth family member,” says Mollye Maxner, who co-wrote a play based on her own family’s story with her father called “Occupied Territories.”

Like many households that include a combat military veteran, Mollye said her family lived with a father whose feelings were held in silence. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress, even though at the time, the term “PTSD” wasn’t commonly known or understood.

Later this month, “Occupied Territories” will be come to Northampton at the Flex Space, 33 Hawley St., for a special engagement reading that brings together actors from the play’s New York City production and local veterans.

When the play was presented last summer on Martha’s Vineyard, where Steve Maxner now lives and is doing well, the reaction from veterans and family members was so intense and overwhelming that the state’s secretary of Veterans’ Services, Francisco Urena, a Marine combat veteran from Iraq who was in the audience, strongly recommended that the play be brought to the “mainland.”

Community partners including the Central Hampshire Veterans’ Services department, based in Northampton; the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Department of the American Gold Star Mothers; the Human Service Forum; and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Leeds jumped on board to support the play coming to Northampton.

After this month’s readings on July 26 and 27, the goal is to raise enough awareness and, in turn, money in the next year to bring the play’s full off-Broadway presentation to Northampton. That means lightning, set and design — the stagecraft that takes a good amount of financial support to bring to production. Mollye Maxner’s hope is that a wide audience can again experience her work’s full immersive and physical richness. There’s no better community for this experience than Northampton.

For Maxner, this is, of course, personal. It means the play is “coming home to Northampton,” she says.

Today, she is a director, choreographer and maker of original movement-theater work and an adjunct faculty member at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. But she often thinks back to her yesterdays in Northampton, where she went to Jackson Street Elementary School, tubed down the Mill River and hung out with friends at Sweeties on Main Street. She may live in North Carolina, but she still has 413 as the area code for her cellphone. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College. The Valley is in her DNA.

That DNA also includes some very dark times when her father, tormented by his Vietnam War experiences, was projecting the pain he was suffering on to his kids. She remembers having “to be careful” around her dad, so as not to startle him. Her older sister influenced the development of Jude, one of the main characters in the play. In “Occupied Territories,” we see Jude on leave from drug rehab to attend her father’s funeral, trying to grapple with her father’s past as a soldier.

It wasn’t until several years after his own return from Vietnam that Steve Maxner found help at Ward 8, the nationally renowned inpatient PTSD unit at the VA campus in Leeds. It was then that things started to shift for her family, Mollye says, from the silence that so many families face when loved ones are in an emotional crisis.

“That time at Ward 8 was really important for him,” says Mollye. “It was the thing that saved him and that whole experience for him put our family on a different path. It just changed our lives. The silence was finally starting to be traversed.”

Mollye Maxner’s hope is that the play continues to deepen the conversation that needs to take place in our communities between soldiers and civilians and between veterans and their family members. It’s a conversation, she said, that really transcends just military families.

“This piece tells a story of soldiers, and of a family navigating the challenges of PTSD and addiction,” says Maxner. “But it is at its root a story of love, of family and brotherhood, and the realities that so many people face in their everyday lives — at least in my experience growing up.”

“Occupied Territories” has won universal acclaim and was nominated for six Helen Hayes awards, winning first place for Outstanding Choreography. But, more importantly, after reading “Occupied Territories,” I can tell you that it’s the first dramatic work in my mind that has captured the essence of what it feels like to go to war and to return home to family and to a community with feelings of disaffection, disillusionment, moral injury and loss of faith and trust in humanity.

It also shows the great love between soldiers and the close connection and bond that so many veterans miss and yearn for again.

In other words, there’s some deep stuff taking place in the occupied territories of this play.

Editor’s note: “Occupied Territories” is part of “What We See,” four weeks of theater projects presented by A.P.E. @Hawley, supported in part by a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and the Northampton Arts Council. The readings are free to the public but are for mature audiences and are not appropriate for children. To reserve a seat, email lisathompson@apearts.org.

John Paradis, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, lives in Florence and writes a column published the second Friday of the month. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.



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