09 Aug SF Chronicle: 'Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter'

Robert Hurwitt, Chronicle Theatre Critic.
Monday, May 30, 2011.

“Give me something to believe in,” the wounded soldier says she used to cry as a child at night, as she searched for God in the cracks in the ceiling of her Barstow home. It’s the degree to which she gets her wish that makes Julie Marie Myatt’s “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” such a touching if somewhat too neatly contrived play.

It makes a pretty strong impression in the TheatreFirst production that opened Friday. Several engrossing performances and Domenique Lozano’s fairly fluid stagings make it clear why the play has been so widely produced since it premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival three years ago.

Part of that success, of course, is because there are so few works of art that address the pressing plight of badly traumatized veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. But it’s also due to the artistic restraint with which Myatt treats the issue, and her success in interweaving the traumas resulting from war with more domestic forms of post-traumatic stress.

Newly returned Marine Jenny Sutter never tells us about the pain and discomfort of her missing leg. In Omozé Idehenre’s intensely focused performance, the deliberate act of taking off her uniform and putting on pants and shoes is eloquent enough. The way she carries her unwillingness to talk about what happened to her in Iraq, like a wound too painful to touch, makes it all the more immediate.

Myatt balances Jenny’s silence, a bit too neatly, with a community of very talkative misfits – the residents of Slab City, a long-term transient encampment on the remnants of a World War II Marine base in the Southern California desert (yes, it’s a real place). Too traumatized to return home to her children yet, or answer her ringing cell phone, this is where Jenny finds refuge of a sort.
Nancy Carlin is appropriately irresistible as Lou, the nonstop talker who takes Jenny under her wing. A gullible victim of a controlling pseudo-therapist (Karol Strempke), Lou is so eloquent about her many addictions – to booze, pills, sex, cigarettes, soda – that she barely mentions the domestic abuse in her past.

Her sometime lover, Buddy (a sweet Brett David Williams) – a self-styled preacher whose rambling, distracted sermons are a highlight of the show – is a survivor of child abuse so severe that he’s more visibly crippled than Jenny. Up-and-coming director-playwright Jon Tracy, in a rare acting stint, is creepily lovable as Donald, an intensely asocial pacifist with anger management issues.

The underlying goodness of all these people may seem a bit too pat in retrospect. The pacing bogs down with the unnecessary length of some scene changes on Martin Flynn’s scrappy set, even with the appealing folk-hymn renditions of “The Sweet By-and-By.”

But Carlin, Idehenre and Williams invest their interactions with an unspoken connection that is deeply affecting. When Jenny finally reveals what happened to her, Lozano’s low-key staging amplifies the impact of Idehenre and Tracy’s performances. Human kindness works its healing magic. It won’t take the place of a social safety net, perhaps, but it gives Jenny something to believe in.

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