Jenny Sutter is the newest kind of wounded war vet—a female United States Marine who, just like her male counterparts did four decades ago upon returning home from an unpopular war in Southeast Asia, has no idea how she can possibly fit back into a “normal” life after the hell she experienced in Iraq.

Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter is award-winning playwright Julie Marie Myatt’s tribute to this latest kind of war victim and a salute to the All-American small town folk who make it their business to give Jenny a hero’s welcome—whether she thinks she deserves one or not.

Myatt’s extraordinary The Happy Ones recently won the L.A.-based writer the LADCC Ted Schmitt Award for the world premiere of an outstanding new play. That South Coast Repertory production was associate directed by Chance Theater Artistic Director Oanh Nguyen, and it was Myatt’s association with the brilliant Nguyen that led her to select The Chance for the Southern California Premiere of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.

Myatt’s confidence was well placed. Under Nguyen’s authoritative, nuanced direction, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter is yet another Chance Theater triumph, a powerful, moving, beautifully performed and staged drama which has much to say to and about our world today.

It matters not that Jenny Sutter (Brenda Banta) is a female Marine, exempt from combat duty. There is no “safe zone” in Iraq, and so Jenny has come home an amputee, the victim of a bomb that somehow managed to escape her vigilant eye at the check point where she was in charge. Hard for a man’s masculinity to come back minus part of a leg. Harder still for a woman’s femininity, and so Jenny has chosen not to see her mother and children, at least not until she’s had the chance to find some kind of peace.

A bus ticket to anywhere being all Jenny wants at this time, she boards a Greyhound for Slab City, smack dab in the middle of the California desert, a concrete slab of a town “full of people figuring their shit out” just as Jenny herself is.

There’s Lou (Jennifer Ruckman), a 38-year-old 12-stepper with the worst perm for miles around; self-proclaimed preacher Buddy (Casey Long), a survivor of horrendous child abuse; lanky, tattooed Donald (Brandon Sean Pearson), a jewelry maker shouldering his own burden of guilt; and hairdresser turned therapist Cheryl (Karen Webster), always ready with New Age pearls of wisdom like “The high road is the rode paved to peace.”

Wyatt provides no easy answers to Jenny’s troubles, just a road stop on the way back to a family that knows nothing of the horrors of war which have wounded Jenny to the core, just some ears to listen to her and some arms to hold her even as she does her best to resist them.

Banta is so absolutely real in her performance as Jenny that audience members from the Loma Linda V.A. expressed the belief that she must be a returning vet herself, high praise indeed. As tough as is the façade Banta puts up as Jenny’s armor, the actress lets us see the wounded, loving soul beneath, especially as the returning Marine begins to let down her guard and reveal her real self and the reason for her nightmares.

Bearded and gravel-voiced, the superb Long so disappears into Buddy’s twisted body that one wonders if friends would recognize him on the street in Buddy guise. Webster, the Chance’s Meryl, is never anything less than excellent, and her Marianne Williamson wannabe is no exception. As Donald, sexy Chance newcomer Pearson makes a strong impression as the kind of man Lou’s and Jenny’s mothers warned them about. In a pair of scenes that bookend Jenny’s stay in Slab City, Maxwell Myers scores drolly as bus station attendant Hugo, whose philosophy is, “What’s the point of cleaning this place? The minute I clean something, some bum just walks in and takes a shit on it.”

Finally, in the most offbeat casting of the year, ethereal beauty Ruckman reinvents herself to play recovering alcohol-cigarette-sleeping pill-aspirin-Diet Coke-sex addict Lou. Though the part would appear to call for a 40something Karen Black type, the award-winning Chance Theater member manages to convince us she is this quirky older gal with truly horrible hair. Then again, this is hardly a surprise from the amazing star of Rabbit Hole and Frozen, leading one to wonder, is there any part Ruckman can’t play?

As he did in Assassins, director Nguyen has reconfigured the Chance so that two rows of seats run lengthwise on either side of the theater. Though the same kind of design works against the power of Theater Out’s current production of Bent, it is here the perfect choice. Myatt’s script has Buddy, Lou, and Cheryl occasionally greeting unseen townsfolk, and the seating arrangement turns audience members into those Slab City residents, making us not merely observers but part of the Welcome Home Jenny Committee. The resulting stage area is wide and deep enough to give an expansive desert feel, with scenic designer Shaun Motley’s set conveying the barren starkness of a city called Slab. KC Wilkerson’s lighting, Anthony Tran’s costumes, and Dave Mickey’s sound complete the excellent design package. Courtny Greenough and Rosalynn Nguyen share duties as production stage managers.

Sunday’s performance was followed by a cast talkback with audience members from the aforementioned Loma Linda V.A., most of whom appeared scarred for life from their war experiences in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq. Myatt has expressed the hope that the powers-that-be “will be less cavalier about starting the next conflict, or maybe they will end this war before the next Jenny Sutter is called back to the desert and this cycle of broken spirits continues.” Perhaps what those in power need is simply to spend a few hours with Jenny Sutter.

The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.

–Steven Stanley
April 25, 2010
Photos: by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio

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