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Review: when 'Jenny' comes marching home

There's something off-putting about topical, awareness-raising plays. They tend to be preachy.

Those who need them most probably aren't going to see them. And they allow us, the playgoers, the smugness of wallowing in our elevated consciousness.

So Julie Marie Myatt's "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" comes as a touching surprise. The world premiere of this short (95 minutes), moving play about a wounded woman Iraq veteran opened Sunday afternoon in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's New Theatre, directed by Steppenwolf Theatre's Jessica Thebus.

"Jenny Sutter" is a tight, funny, sad look at a world of deep pain and gentle kindness. It turns out to be less about raising our awareness than inviting us simply to witness. And it's close-in and personal with the intimate New Theatre in a thrust configuration.

After losing part of a leg in a horrific act of violence at a U.S. checkpoint in Iraq, 30-year-old mom and new ex-Marine Jenny (Gwendolyn Mulamba) is not ready for the real world and Oceanside, Calif., where her mother is caring for her children. At loose ends, she chances to meet free-spirit Lou (Kate Mulligan) in a bus station and accompanies her to Slab City, a World War II-era Marine base in the California desert.

The site, which is a real place, is home to a year-round encampment of RVers, campers, tenters and misfits. Everybody here wears a mask of some sort. The unsettled site, rendered in a spare Richard L. Hay design augmented by Allen Lee Hughes' lights, also is an analog of the spiritual space in which Jenny is now stuck. She is no longer a warrior and not yet ready to be a civilian, a mother, a woman.

Like numb, vulnerable Jenny, Slab City and its denizens no longer fit anywhere. And if the community is a sort of generalized mirror for Jenny, Lou is a particular mirror. With the help of her shrink, Cheryl (K.T. Vogt), Lou has given up smoking, drinking, sex, drugs, gambling and other addictions. Nevermind that Cheryl's professional experience consists of her time as a hairdresser in Hemet.

On the surface, Lou and Jenny are opposites. Lou talks nonstop in great bursts of free association to anybody who will listen. Jenny won't open up, although in her dreams she cries out to God. Neither wants to feel her feelings.

That's in contrast to Buddy (David Kelly), the camp's low-key preacher. Buddy was severely abused as a child, and his twisted body is an ironic contrast to the beauty of his spirit, which is free of bitterness. Buddy is a marvelous creation. Myatt has said he was gnawing at her before she wrote "Jenny Sutter." Maybe he will have further life on the stage.

But Buddy isn't the only good guy. In fact, "Jenny Sutter" is full of kind people trying to do good. The character that comes closest to being an antagonist is Donald (Gregory Linington), a cynical pacifist. But even he comes around.

The real antagonists are Jenny's pain — she's not only missing a piece of her leg, she keeps a terrible secret — and a world that doesn't want to hear about it. We like our invasions shocking and awesome, our occupations short and sweet, our wars to be winners. We pass the cost down to our children and move on.

But women like Jenny walk among us now, and more will arrive in the years to come. Myatt is asking what we are to do. The tragicomic "Jenny Sutter" doesn't pretend to have the answers, but it insists we face the question, and it suggests that kindness is a good place to start.

Thebus has given Jenny's story vigorous life, free of artifice. She deftly balances the action with the elegiac passages. There are moments of tender pathos, as when Jenny's new friends bake her a cake and the candles burn down. And moments of horror, with the pop of a balloon flipping Jenny into a combat flashback.

Myatt grew up in a military family in which silence around the subject of Vietnam was a presence in the home. Now she is asking, eloquently, how we reach out to broken people, and what it takes to become unstuck.

"Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" will travel to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in July. The OSF is offering two free tickets to vets, active duty military people and reservists, subject to availability, throughout the run.

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

Review: when 'Jenny' comes marching home