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.
(Page 2 of 2)
"Every veteran I've gone to see it with has cried from a very deep place," says Steinman. "Not from sadness or loss, but just from this connection that you can't quite explain."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The play is a kind of tutorial for what many Americans face today, but it's not a downer. Nor is Jenny's disability treated morbidly. And there are funny bits to break the emotional tension. Asked to describe the play in a phrase, Steinman says, "It's hilarious ... bring Kleenex."
Although the Oregon Shakespeare Festival frequently takes on tough subjects, "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter" is unusual for this large repertory-theater organization, which has more than 100 actors performing 11 plays in three theaters over a nine-month season. The play portrays a critical aspect of a war that's not over yet; OSF is offering free tickets to military personnel; one of its theaters will be used for a public "welcome home" event on Memorial Day.
In fact, it was the producers' empathetic attempt to depict an Iraq war combat veteran and civilians coming together, gaining at least the beginnings of mutual understanding, that led them to Steinman. Someone at a nearby Veterans of Foreign Wars post told them about a member who was an Iraq war veteran and a woman.
Initial discussions between Steinman and the OSF evolved into her taking on an advisory position. As she started her work, Steinman read the script for authenticity, suggesting changes in detail and nuance. She spent time with Gwendolyn Mulamba, who plays Jenny Sutter. And she organized a meeting between the cast and eight Iraq and Afghanistan vets from her Veterans Affairs support group.
That was a real eye-opener.
"They all seemed to talk very rapidly," recalls Ms. Mulamba. "Some were dead serious, and with others everything came out in a humorous way." A couple of the vets remained silent, says Mr. Kelly. "It was very uncomfortable, because we didn't know what to say. One rule was, we weren't supposed to ask any questions about what happened there – any kind of battle that might have sparked something for somebody."
"The other elephant in the room was the politics of it," he adds. "It was interesting to find out that that isn't the main thing for those people. It wasn't about politics, it was about your fellow soldier."
The play is notably apolitical. Even so, the playwright still worries about the strength of her work during a long and controversial war. "Have I said enough? Does what I've presented say enough?" asks Ms. Myatt. "I'm still struggling with that."
But, she adds, "If it makes one person a night think about one thing, that's enough for me."
It's a difficult subject. But in this dramatic depiction there is a measure of redemption. In the end, Jenny – as Steinman has done – gains a self-awareness about the difficulties of reentry into civilian life, and she sees more clearly the positive possibilities in postwar life. Things aren't fully resolved – far from it – but they're more hopeful.
As Steinman, who just graduated from the reintegration program at the VA, puts it: "There may be injury, but we're not broken." Today she works with student groups coming to the festival and finds that, "Life right now is actually really good."