Ever wonder how Brecht’s Mother Courage got to be so tough? In her harrowing new play, “Queens,” which opened Monday at LCT’s Claire Tow Theater, Martyna Majok takes an immigrant woman, Renia, fresh from Poland, and puts her together with other struggling women from around the globe.
They all share a basement apartment in Queens, N.Y., and over the course of 17 years, from 2001 to 2017, we watch as Renia goes from a frightened, nearly mute young woman to a proud American citizen and owner of the apartment building.
Renia and the other women aren’t dragging their children around the war zone a la Mother Courage. These women have had to leave their children behind, in either Poland or Honduras or elsewhere, but make no mistake about it: The America they’ve come to definitely qualifies as a war zone, and they carry that battle into this basement space where cartons of milk are measured, clothes are described by the many hours of labor it took to buy them, and the next woman to walk through the door or bust her way through one of the apartment’s two windows could steal everything, including the privilege any of them has of being in United States.
At key moments of transition in time and place, “Queens” resembles a smart horror film. Laura Jellinek’s movable set alternately induces claustrophobia and, whenever the women venture outside, equally debilitating agoraphobia. Stowe Nelson’s startling sound design and Matt Frey’s extremely dramatic lighting enhance those twin fears. At times, it’s very flashy stagecraft.
Equally impressive is Danya Taymor’s far more subtle direction of the play’s extended moments of conversation among the women as they jockey for power, as well as seek protection from each other.
In the beginning, “Queens” resembles one of those World War II movies released in the 1950s where the barracks or the battleship is comprised of a carefully selected overview of humanity. There’s the hick, the Jew, the prep-school grad, the Italian-American. In “Queens,” in addition to Ana Reeder’s frightened Polish sparrow, there’s Nicole Villamil’s fiery Latina from Honduras, Nadine Malouf’s intellectual Muslim from Kabul, and Jessica Love’s pragmatic den mother from Belarus.
The sensitivity of the performances, most notably Love’s very conflicted Pelagiya, soon blurs the most obvious character demarcations. Majok firmly establishes a complicated network of tangential relationships in act one’s extended “party” scene. One woman’s imminent return to her daughter in Latin America is celebrated, after a fashion, while simultaneously another woman who has left her child behind in Eastern Europe is welcomed to the group.
“Queens” is a two-hour, 40-minute play with two intermissions. Clearly, Majok takes her time to tell a vast, multi-faceted tale spanning nearly two decades. Through double casting, most of the actresses play other immigrant women who seek refuge in and are ultimately thrown out of this basement in Queens. The characters change, the despair and desperation do not.
Majok’s vast tour includes a visit to Ukraine where a young woman, Inna (Sarah Tolan-Mee), plans a trip to America to find her mother. Inna pops up throughout the play and pulls the plot together with her journey from Eastern Europe to the American South and finally Queens. Lost in America for months, Tolan-Mee convinces us of the stench that Renia says emanates from her body after so much aimless wandering, a stench that ultimately softens that Polish-American property owner’s iron will.
One of the great pleasures of watching “Queens” is that Majok keeps us involved without ever telegraphing where her story is headed. Inna, who makes only brief appearances in Act 1, dominates Act 2. That focus shifts back to Renia in Act 3 and requires Reeder to travel a 180-degree character arc, putting her in direct conflict her unflinching pragmatism and her love for a missing daughter. And of course we learn how Renia came to own the apartment building in Queens. With only a slight change in costume and hairstyle, Reeder delivers a dramatic transformation that is genuinely chilling.
Majok might consider some minor edits in her text. English is the characters’ second language, and it makes sense when they eschew their original tongue for English to speak to each other. But occasionally, two characters share the same native language. In these cases, Majok has given them odd reasons for continuing to speak in English. It’s awkward and unnecessary to have Inna or Renia explain that she wants to practice her English or claim some weird allegiance to her adopted country. No one goes to Chekhov expecting Uncle Vanya to speak Russian. At least, not when he’s on stage in New York.