With the war in Iraq having recently “ended,” and the Afghanistan war winding down, America has and will continue to receive an influx of veterans suffering psychological and physical traumas. How they assimilate upon their return – having fought a war, seen death and experienced humanity in its cruelest embodiment – forms the crux of this socially relevant, surprisingly offbeat, play.
“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” is playwright Julie Marie Myatt’s examination of a Marine (Lily Mojekwu of “The Overwhelming” at Next Theatre) struggling to
resume her life after tours in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost her one of her legs and her sense of self. From the outset, while Jenny lies on a cot in a Middle East desert, ruminating on a childhood spent listening to her parents argue while she looked for God in the cracks of the ceiling, a tone of immediacy dominates the stage. Shortly thereafter, both the playwright and the Next Theatre Company shove convention off to the side and delay Jenny’s potentially overwrought homecoming with a bus-stop reprieve and a melancholic trip to a squatter’s paradise.
After the opening scene, a brief but excruciating depiction of Jenny trying to maintain dignity while pulling up a pair of pants without any help, she returns to the States, dreading her return home. She is a changed person, guilt-ridden and fitted with a new prosthetic leg.
Jenny is playing solitaire at a bus stop, unsure of her destination, when an overbearing ticket-taker claims that this part of town is no place for a woman alone. Jenny responds, “I’ve seen worse.”
While the story and themes are serious and dark, the tone is often wistful and the humor runs deep. Enter Lou (Next’s artistic director, Jenny Avery), an energetic ball of inappropriateness and fun. Lou is in the process of trying to kick every addiction known to man, striving to be a healthier person. She befriends the aimless Jenny and the two hop a bus to Lou’s community in Slab City, the real-life former military base in the badlands of Southern California that is home to artists, hippies, drug addicts, recovering addicts and people displaced by the current economic downturn. A writer for Time Magazine described Slab City thus: “If the Burning Man festival were a permanent settlement instead of a weeklong escape …”
The denizens of Slab City, including a preacher (Lawrence Grimm), a therapist (Hanna Dworkin) and a social misfit (Kurt Brocker), whose brutal honesty disarms Jenny, even after he rejects her sexual advances. She feels ugly with her new appendage, and she tries to escape her feelings by getting drunk and having anonymous sex.
A strong ensemble cast elevates this atypical story (and staging), giving the main character limited stage time. This allows those around her to examine their own lives while Jenny sleeps off her pain, suffers nightmares and flashbacks, and finds a way to pull herself back up through the support of her new friends.
It is not possible for those who have never fought a war to begin to imagine the healing process necessary for soldiers to return to society. That is what this play is about, and the fine acting and unique directing of Jessica Thebus force the viewer to reflect on that truth.
“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” runs through Dec. 23 at the Next Theatre Company in Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St. Tickets are available at 847-
475-1875 ext. 2 or nexttheatre.org.