War veteran battles her demons back at home

THEATER REVIEW: "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" at Next Theatre ★★★

  Jennifer Avery and Lily Mojekwu in "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter."

Jennifer Avery and Lily Mojekwu in "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter." (November 19, 2012)

Few shows that open the week of Thanksgiving are as suffused with melancholy as the sardonically titled "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," a quiet, honest, intermittently moving play by Julie Marie Myatt at the Next Theatre, a company eschewing the usual holiday fare. Myatt is telling the story of a veteran who loses a leg to the war in Iraq and, thereafter, really doesn't want to come home at all, even though her kids await, because her experiences in the war have exploded her entire sense of self. This is by no means the only play looking at the difficulties of re-integration faced by members of the Armed Services, but it is one that approaches the issue with a particularly restrained kind of dignity and that, as a consequence, rings very true.

We first meet Jenny Sutter (Lily Mojekwu) as she removes her military fatigues and pulls a pair of civvy jeans over her new leg. We then see her wander in Northern California, eventually striking up a conversation with a loquacious young woman named Lou (Jenny Avery), a mostly likable basketload of various addictions. The effusive Lou takes quiet Jenny off to Slab City, the real-life squatter's camp built on the remnants of a decommissioned military base in the Badlands of California (its name comes from the concrete slabs covering the floor of the desert). There, the title character meets various other folks who, for one reason or another, have chosen to live their life off the usual grid.

The ethos at Slab City is rather like Christiania in Copenhagen: The place operates in a kind of parallel universe to the world outside. For Jenny it's a waystation to put herself back together and face the future.

Jenny was conceived by Myatt as a taciturn character: a wounded soul for whom trauma is not manifest in outwardly visible scars but resides very much on her inside. Passivity is very difficult to play in the theater, yet Majekwu somehow manages to forge a profoundly sympathetic character with a really striking amount of gravitas and honesty. This performance, one of the best of the fall, is the main reason to see this show. That said, Kurt Brocker, who plays one of Slab City's many apathetic, disengaged souls, rises to meet Mojekwu's majestic work. These two characters could fall in love, we clearly see, if only they could deal with their own issues, and the way they interact in this play's most powerful scene shook me greatly on Monday night.

Whenever "Jenny Sutter" strays from Jenny Sutter, the writing becomes less convincing. Although Lou's energy is surely needed as a counterweight, she's a more obviously theatrical character, as is her sometime boyfriend Buddy (Lawrence Grimm), a kind of preacher-leader in Slab City. Then again, the fine actor Grimm gives this character a certain luminescence.

Jessica Thebus previously directed this show in Washington in 2008, and she certainly understands its point of view and has cast its roles exceptionally well. Boy, though, this earnest staging could use more vivacity, messiness and variety — its rhythms get far too fixed in set patterns, and there are a lot of scenes wherein characters seem to wander on to Jacqueline and Richard Penrod's resonant setting with all of the urgency of folks on the beach. To some extent, I suppose, these denizens of Slab City are symbolically on vacation, but I kept thinking how the piece would be so much stronger theatrically if only Thebus were working counter-intuitively. Just because you're dropping out of the big picture doesn't mean the small stuff is all proceeding at half-speed. Au contraire, such crises only intensify. Jenny Sutter saw plenty of rough edges in Iraq: her play in Evanston could use far more bite.

Next was also struggling on opening night to work with the relative size of this production: There was much uneasiness from a production-management point of view. But that will surely settle. Whenever you go, and there are real rewards here, Mojekwu's deep dive of a character will surely sit with you long after you leave. If you've ever had trouble facing the day, you'll intuitively understand what she's going through here.

Former warriors just don't re-enter the American atmosphere the ease of some post-orbital rocket; rarely has this been fully appreciated. In the absence of a Slab City of understanding, some vets have to welcome themselves back home, assuming they have figured out what that means.

When: Through Dec. 23

Where: Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Tickets: $30-$40 at 847-475-1875 at nexttheatre.org

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