For an Iraq war veteran, new play is a personal odyssey
When Melissa Steinman was picked as an adviser to a topical play, it aided her postwar recovery – and helped other veterans, too.
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The transition has not been easy. It has included participation in a trauma-rehab program at a nearby US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) facility.
What she didn't anticipate was that the healing process also would involve playing an important part in the world première of a play about an Iraq war vet. That production, "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" by Julie Marie Myatt, is now in performance at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) here. In July, OSF's cast and crew will take the play to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Ms. Steinman's behind-the-scenes role is as military adviser to the dramaturge, design team, and cast of six actors. In the war, she had been a US Coast Guard petty officer in charge of armed patrol boats guarding US Navy ships, port facilities, and other "high value assets." She doesn't talk a lot about the work except to say, "My job was to put my boat between the bad man and the people or things I was guarding."
It was a tense situation, and for a long time she exhibited the "hyper awareness" that many returning combat vets do even though they're back home – checking out strangers in benign public places for potential danger, for example. There were moments of fight-or-flight panic, she says, although she's learned to deal with it.
In the play, Jenny Sutter, a US marine who lost part of a leg in a suicide bombing, is just back from Iraq. Her two small children have been living with their grandmother. But Jenny is not ready to go home. She feels guilty about the circumstance of her injury, and she wonders how her family will see her now. After a chance meeting at a bus station, she takes up with a group of oddballs and misfits living in the California desert at a place called "Slab City" – an abandoned military base with nothing left but concrete slab foundations. They get to know one another, but Jenny remains aloof.
A key character in the story is Buddy (David Kelly), a gentle self-appointed mayor and preacher of Slab City whose homilies, delivered from a stack of milk crates for a pulpit, are deceptively rambling. But they poignantly and perceptively reflect the heartbreaking difficulty of loving someone you don't understand – someone like Jenny.
"There's an unspoken connection between people in the play, between the actors and those watching the play, and among those watching the play," says Steinman. That bond centers on how to think about, and be around, war vets. Veterans have come back different, and civilians aren't quite sure how to respond, what questions to ask (or not ask), and how to relate to what they've experienced.