With the Iraq War winding down, it's likely we'll see a whole spate of theatrical works about veterans coming home. Many of them will fall in the vein of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, a play that dramatizes the horrors of post traumatic stress disorder, now at TheatreFIRST, under the direction of Domenique Lozano. Buoyed by a few powerful performances — namely that of lead actress Omozé Idehenre — it nonetheless sags under the leaden didacticism of Julie Marie Myatt's script.
Granted, it must be hard to write about the Iraq War and resist the temptation to sermonize. Perhaps Myatt was trying for a morally ambiguous storyline, but the song that opens this particular production — a Johnny Cash rendition of "I'll Fly Away" — pretty much sets up our expectations. We're introduced to Jenny Sutter in voice-over form, as she remembers growing up poor in a one-room apartment. From that information alone, it's easy to divine her reasons for joining the Marine Corps: poverty, a lack of opportunity in the real world, desire to be a hero, maybe a family legacy (her uncle was killed in Vietnam). Then, in the play's forceful opening scene, we meet the present-day Jenny Sutter: A veteran returning from her tour in Iraq with one visible wound (her artificial leg), and a lot of anguish that the outside world can't see.
Few actors are better at looking wounded than Idehenre. Her silent opening sequence is easily the best in the play, as Sutter laboriously changes into civilian clothes and packs all her possessions into a duffel bag: uniform, blanket, deck of playing cards. She's bound for Slab City, a squat in the Colorado Desert, just south of Los Angeles (according to the program notes from artistic director Michael Storm, the name derives from concrete slabs left over from World War II barracks). On the way she meets another drifter, Lou (Nancy Carlin), who has made a career of being charmingly neurotic. Lou takes Jenny in and becomes a dubious spiritual guide. The significance of those bus stop scenes — there are two and they bookend the play — shouldn't elude anyone, nor should the purgatorial aspect of Slab City.
Indeed, there's a heavy-handedness to Welcome Home that starts to wear after a while. Perhaps that's to be expected. After all, if Jeremy Renner's performance in The Hurt Locker taught us anything, it's the near impossibility of re-acclimating to your old life, after serving in combat. Jenny tries to deliver that message at a climactic moment in the play, by describing her job as a soldier. But she communicates it more effectively in the way she moves around, or flinches, or startles from loud noises — like a balloon being popped.
At these moments, Jenny seems like the most believably human character in the play, which might be a testament to Idehenre's skill as an actor — my only objection is the heavy breathing she uses to denote panic, which seems a bit over-stated, in this performance. The people around her are all ciphers. Lou apparently represents our collective naiveté, via all her misguided attempts to help Jenny. (The play's title phrase first appears on a banner, accompanied by a cake with American flags.) Lou's love interest, Buddy (Brett Williams) is another character maimed by external forces — in this case, abusive parents, which might be Myatt's analogy for a country that sends its children to war. Jenny's pseudo-love interest, Donald (local theater director Jon Tracy, making a celebrity cameo) subjects Jenny to an obnoxious anti-war tirade. Lou's therapist (Karol Strempke) serves no ostensible purpose, other than to show the danger of applying superficial solutions to complex problems.
That's a criticism one might level on Myatt, who wrote in the program notes that she wants this play to be more a rumination, than a resolution. Unfortunately, she couldn't resist the urge to wrap things up a little too tightly, and psychologize her characters in a rather trite way. Still, Welcome Home poses some important questions. Given the duration of this war, and all the vehement political dialogue it generated, and our ignoble history of treating war veterans as "baby killers," it's unclear what will happen as the troops start trickling home. Myatt also makes the point that this is the first war with a lot of female vets, whose experience of PTSD will undoubtedly be quite distinct from that of their male counterparts. (Not for nothing does Jenny Sutter panic about her appearance, or attempt to hide her disfigured leg.) These are questions that other, more eloquent writers will explore in the coming years. For now, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter is a useful primer.