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.

courtesy of david cooper/oregon shakespeare festival
War story: Gwendolyn Mulamba plays the lead role of Jenny Sutter in a new play about a war veteran.
Melissa Steinman, an Iraq war veteran, was an adviser on "Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter," a play about an Iraq War veteran returning home.

When Melissa Steinman came home from Iraq at the end of 2004, she had a lot on her mind. Mainly, how to re-adjust to civilian life after nearly a year in a war zone.

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.

"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."

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."

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