Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter Reviewed

My Journal column this week contains a review written by playwright, director, teacher and now drama critic (and also my partner) Margaret Thomas Kelso, of the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter. I had to edit it for space in print, but not for cyberspace. So here is her full review:

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, written by Julie Marie Myatt and directed by Jessica Thebus, joins a long line of stories about soldiers returning from war that date back to Homer’s Odyssey. And like Ulysses, Jenny Sutter does not take a direct path home. But instead of Calypso’s island, Iraq war veteran Jenny detours by way of Slab City, California, in her own odyssey to find herself before reconnecting with her family. Unlike Ulysses, she is coming home injured: she suffers from PTSD, survivor’s guilt and an amputated leg. And as a woman, she faces greater expectations to emotionally reunite with her children. The play asks can she heal herself enough to be able to face the rest of the journey home?

Approximately 200,000 women have served in the Iraq so far and more of them have faced hostile fire and resulting injuries than women in the military ever before. How the ravages of war will impact servicewomen (in contrast to civilian women who suffer collateral damage) is still unknown.

The director Jessica Thebus has discovered the perfect tone for the piece: amusing, gritty and without a trace of sentimentality. The performances are all strong with Gwendolyn Mulamba playing an acerbic and ironic Jenny, who grounds the play with her pain and dignity. The rest of the cast are mostly odd ball inhabitants of Slab City, a real location, the remnants of a WWII Marine base at the foot of the Chocolate Mountains where a community of retirees and misfits squat in domiciles ranging from tarps to classic Airstreams. It’s a perfect location for the likes of Jenny and offers the playwright plenty of material for a supporting cast of quirky characters who infuse humor and warmth into the play and Jenny’s life.

Lou, a professional itinerant trying to give up her many addictions , calls Slab City her home base. Kate Mulligan plays Lou with energy and sizzle, becoming an upbeat foil for the laconic Jenny. Other residents of the slabs are Buddy, Lou’s sometimes boyfriend/preacher, skillfully played by David Kelly; Cheryl, Lou’s hairdresser/therapist, believably performed by K.T. Vogt; and Donald, an emotionally damaged cipher whose deft performance by Gregory Linington prevents these characters from sliding into romanticism. Cameron Knight plays Hugo, the bus station’s night shift employee who is the first civilian Jenny meets after discharge.

Richard Hay created a simple set that serves flawlessly while maintaining a bit of magic in the scene transitions that Oregon Shakespeare does so well.. Lynn Jeffries designed costumes that anchor the realistic tone of the play while supporting the character development of the actors. Allen Lee Hughes’s lighting not only supports the action and mood of the play but creates locales, especially the hospital setting at the opening of the play.

The only shortcoming of the production were several extended lifeless scenes. The first was very early in the play when Jenny changes from her marine fatigues into civilian clothes, an important sequence which reveals to the audience not only her transition out of military life, but also her struggle with her artificial leg. Important but lasting far too long without suspense or other drama. Another lifeless scene is when Jenny collapses and “Oh, Happy Days,” plays ironically in the background for many minutes too long.

Other than these moments, the direction was skillful and sensitive, honoring the pain, celebrating survival, and finding the humor in a challenging situation. The performance tells a story we all need to consider in an engaging hour thirty-five minutes (without intermission.)

Note: This play runs at OSF in Ashland, Oregon through June 20.

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