“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” which continues through Saturday, premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2008. Fresno State director Kathleen McKinley deserves kudos simply for getting such a current work onstage. In today’s world of 24-hour news cycles and immediate blog postings, it’s tempting to think of theater as quaint in terms of reaction time to current events. It often takes years for plays to be written and produced, and university theater seasons are often planned long in advance.
It’s a pleasant surprise, then, that this drama about a woman soldier coming home from the Iraq War with a devastating injury has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel to it.
Of course, the war in Iraq has been going on for many years now, alas, so perhaps part of my reaction reflects an unwillingness to believe that it’s gone on for as long as it has.
What I like best about Julie Marie Myatt’s play is the nonsentimental — and occasionally brusque — way that the playwright dives into issues related to the homecoming. Rather than setting “Jenny Sutter” in a traditional family environment, with the wounded soldier returning to the cocoonlike atmosphere of a doting (or dysfunctional) family, Myatt pitches her title character into a more noncommital setting: an itinerant community named Slab City in which various people, many down on their luck, form their own bonds.
It’s as if Jenny (Kelsey Oliver), who lost her leg in the war, is given a buffer zone of sorts after she’s discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps — which allows for a more relaxed, playful vibe even as she confronts some pretty heavy issues.
Jenny can’t face returning home to her children, and instead in a filthy bus station connects with a perky drifter, Louise (Kelsey Deroian). Louise urges Jenny to follow her to Slab City in the California desert. There Jenny casts tentative roots and meets a motley assortment of characters, most of whom have their own difficulties integrating seamlessly into society.
The play is actually strongest — and most intriguing — when it comes to these supporting characters. Top of the list is Deroian’s scrappy portrayal of Louise, a restless and amusing woman who tries to quit her many addictions (smoking, sex, gambling, booze, you name it) even as she resists personal commitment. She’s matched by a stirring, powerful performance from Matthew McGee as Buddy, a self-proclaimed preacher who offers impromptu sermons and forges a somewhat reluctant bond with Louise. McGee finds an impressive strength in his slight and battered character, and his monologues are superb.
Bryce Earp offers a sharp, stern turn as Donald, a self-described loner who allows himself to be just a little rattled by Jenny’s emphatic brooding.
Jenny’s storyline, and the character itself, is a challenge. So much of her story calls for her to be in sullen reactive mode, and Oliver struggles at times trying to get out of her character’s hard shell. It’s a tremendously difficult, non-showy role. There are weaknesses in the writing, acting and direction of the title character, which dilutes the play’s ultimate impact. But there are also moments when you can slip through Oliver’s brusque delivery and connect with the ache beneath.
McKinley crafts seamless transitions between scenes. Gwenna Merriman’s understated scenic design helps capture the slight nature of the itinerant camp, and Stephanie Bradshaw’s tired, understated costumes seem to perfectly match the characters — high praise indeed. Izzy Einsidler’s lighting and sound design takes us from the flash of battle to the quiet of the faraway desert. Sometimes, the playwright seems to suggest, the real life-and-death decisions get made not on the battlefield but on that desert.