World premiere at OSF examines the difficulties faced by women returning from war

Julie Marie Myatt's father never talked about his two tours of duty in Vietnam.

In writing a play about a veteran of the Iraq war trying to come home, was Myatt — on some level — taking care of unfinished business?

"I don't think it was conscious," she says.

Jenny, the central character in Myatt's "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" served as a Marine, lost part of a leg and now finds herself out of the military. But she's not ready to go home to her kids.

Myatt is the author of "My Wandering Boy," "August is a Thin Girl" and other plays. Her work has been produced at the Guthrie Theater, the Magic Theatre, Seattle Rep, Actors Theatre of Louisville and other theaters. She says she didn't want to write a "war play," but a play about the struggles of a veteran coming home. When she began her research in early 2006, she was struck by the number of women serving in our current wars.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, more than 180,000 women have served in combat support roles in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them single mothers. More than 100 have been killed. Although women are not supposed to be in ground combat, there is no clearly defined front line in Iraq.

A 2005 attempt to further limit the kinds of jobs military women can hold was defeated in the House of Representatives. Web sites are devoted to women with arms and legs blown off.

"There is this whole generation of women soldiers coming back," Myatt says. "Are we ready for that? Does it change the way we view war?"

Myatt has no doubt there are — and will be — plenty of real women like Jenny. She figures they will have some problems in common with male veterans, and others that are unique to women.

"These women have kids waiting, and they can't isolate themselves while they wait to heal like a lot of men did after Viet Nam. There's this whole gap. There was the silent, John Wayne suffering. But what's the icon now?"

Feeling depressed and powerless about the Iraq war, Myatt found herself writing lots of humor and kindness into her characters. Her last play was about the sexual abuse of children, so she needed that.

"For me the writing process is not very intellectual," she says.

Eventually the characters took on lives of their own and helped lead Myatt through the play, which is being directed by directed by Steppenwolf Theatre's Jessica Thebus. Jenny lost part of a leg in Iraq. She's not ready for Oceanside, Calif., where her mom is taking care of the kids. She meets Lou, a woman headed for a place called Slab City, a seedy, semi-permanent RV camp in the Southern California desert, and decides to tag along.

Jenny clams up, has nightmares, cries out to God. People at Slab City have issues. Lou is trying to give up addictions that include gambling, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and sex. She's being helped by the gentle Buddy, who may also be stealing soap from residents. Will Jenny respond to Lou and Buddy's friendship? Will she work out her guilt? Be OK with the kids? Resolve any of her baggage?

Thebus says such questions are crucial and timely.

"It's always important and challenging for artists to speak to the present cultural moment," she says. "We don't have much perspective yet.

"I think Julie began by looking at this one woman. She's just one, but she's like the unknown soldier. All these injured and troubled people are returning. How does a community cope with a broken person?"

Thebus read Myatt's play and fell in love with it when OSF's new artistic director, Bill Rauch, sent it to her. Thebus, who teaches at Northwestern University, has directed at many theaters and toured internationally with the Bread and Puppet Theater. She has designed courses and taught at The University of Chicago and other colleges.

She says it's a highly visual play.

"Most of it is in Slab City," she says. "It has its own character. There's nothing there. What's there is what you bring. There's light in the sky, makeshift habitations, a painted landscape, a tent, people making do."

Thebus says the play will be presented with the New Theatre in the thrust configuration, with the audience on three sides. The set has been designed so that it will also work at the Kennedy Center, which has a classic proscenium stage.

"We'll probably re-rehearse," she says.

If there is an antagonist in the play, it is indifference, Myatt says.

She says she had the character of Buddy in mind for a couple years, even before the play.

"He's a culmination of a couple things," she says. "It's about people who've experienced violence but made another choice."

Myatt is mindful of the fact that a majority of Americans say the war was a mistake, and that even a majority of servicemen and women say they should be brought home. How does the unpopularity of the war factor into the play?

"I feel it," she says. "But we are still complicit in that these people are there with our flag on their uniforms. We can't just say it's their problem. They're coming back damaged and broken. For what?"

Thebus says the play is focused not on the war or whether it's wrong or right, but on the first moment after the fact.

"It's when you're not a soldier anymore," she says. "But you're not a veteran yet."

The play in the end offers no solutions for war, preaches no lessons.

"You're in that moment," Thebus says. "What does it mean? Where do we sit in relation to this person?"

Myatt's father went on to be a commander in the first Gulf War and retired a two-star general, but talking about war remained a no-go zone in the family home. Myatt says that was probably a good breeding ground for a playwright. She allows that Jenny's story may in some way connect the present with a past she's always kept out of her writing.

"Maybe it kind of has become that," she says. "I think it's there, in my heart."

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com

Correction: The original version of this story included incorrect information about the length of time free tickets would be available. This version has been corrected.