WORLD'S STAGE: Julie Marie Myatt is interested in those living on the fringes, and that unfortunately encompasses many veterans.
War and Peace
Playwright Julie Marie Myatt on the costs of conflict and the power of theater
By David Templeton
For those of us who've found ourselves working in theater," playwright Julie Marie Myatt says, "theater is how we try to make a difference in the world. It's how we engage the issues that confront us in our lives, and if we do our job right, we take those issues and present them to society in a way that allows people to engage those questions in new ways. That was certainly my goal with Jenny Sutter."
Next weekend, Sebastopol's Sonoma County Repertory Theater presents the California premiere of Myatt's powerful drama Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, first performed last year as part of Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival. After a five-month run in Oregon, the play, with its original cast intact, moved to Washington, D.C., for a limited run at the Kennedy Center. About a wounded Iraq solider and mother of two who fears returning home to her children after losing her leg in battle, Jenny Sutter has incited significant dialogue among its audiences, many of whom are veterans.
Myatt, who lives in Los Feliz, Calif., is an award-winning writer with a string of plays tackling hard subjects, from homelessness (My Wandering Boy) to the Cambodian sex trade (Boats on a River) to the battle over abortion rights (Someday). Her work has been staged at some of America's most esteemed theaters, including Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater, Costa Mesa's South Coast Repertory, L.A.'s Cornerstone Theatre Company and the Humana Festival in Kentucky. Her vision is at once intimate in focus and grand in scope, evidenced by Jenny Sutter's primary setting in Slab City, a real-life transient "city" formed at a decommissioned military base near the Salton Sea.
Within the Wild West, tent-and-camper culture of Slab City, Jenny Sutter, freshly discharged from the military, finds herself clashing and connecting with the local misfits and dropouts as she confronts her own darkest demons, desperately grasping for the courage and sanity to finally make her way home again. Just after the play's premiere in Oregon, I interviewed Myatt over breakfast, where the author was clearly energized by the initial responses to the piece.
"My dad was a Marine," she says, sipping a cup of coffee. "He served two tours in Vietnam, so I grew up in a military atmosphere—and I grew up not talking about the war. Life goes on, that was the official family position on war. After Vietnam, my dad stayed in the military. He retired a two star general. So the military has always been a big part of my life, though I haven't written about it until now."
"What took you so long?" I ask.
"I don't know," she laughs. "To tell the truth, when I started writing this play, I hadn't even thought about it as being about the military. I just thought I was writing from the perspective of someone who is, personally, very much against this stupid, never-ending war in Iraq. As someone who grew up with respect for the people who serve in the military, I feel like the troops are the real victims here. I think this war is different from Vietnam, because there was a draft then, and everyone in the country had family members, brothers and cousins and fathers and boyfriends that were going. The effects of the war were taking place in all of our homes. So in some ways it's easier to feel distant from this war now because, unless you happen to know someone who's over there, it's just this thing that's happening that we have no control over."
"As you wrote the play," I ask, "did you find yourself wrestling with how much of your own politics to put into the script?"
"I feel like my wrestling is the play," she says. "The image of a wounded veteran is, all on its own, a highly political statement. It begs the question, 'Is this war worth it?' That's why I wrote the opening scene the way I did, with Jenny waking up the last day of her military service, and getting dressed around her missing leg. I feel like the audience sitting there watching Jenny change clothes is an important moment. It's saying, 'Here. Take a look. This is what war is.'"
"How has writing this play changed your view of the world," I ask. "And has it changed your view of war?"
"Well," Myatt laughs, "I've suddenly become very interested in war, more than ever before. I think about war a lot—what it says about a country, what it does to the people who have to live with the effects of war on a daily basis. For most of us, we can't fathom it; we've not experienced that kind of trauma. We have had trauma in other ways in our life, but you know, seeing someone blown up in front of you is a whole different problem."
"The setting of Slab City is such an interesting location," I say. "I assume you've been there?"
"Absolutely," she says. "It's a really fascinating place, this whole transient culture that has been built up out there. There are a lot of veterans out there, by the way. If I wanted to, I could write plays about the people of Slab City forever. I'm really attracted to that, the idea of people living on the fringes."
"And it's there on the fringes that Jenny finds what she needs to begin her healing," I point out. "What are you saying with that?"
"In a way, all of these characters she meets are stuck in their own grief, they are all really stuck," she says. "My point is that all of these people, they are just as damaged as Jenny Sutter, but they still all want to help her, they're all trying to tell her, 'Look, go home. Just, go home.' Because she can go home. She has a home. They don't have anywhere to go."
The ending of the play leaves questions hanging, questions about what Jenny will do next. Nothing is neatly wrapped up, and Myatt says that was a very definite decision on her part, to end the play with uncertainty.
"I think that's where we are as a country," she says. "The process of dealing with all of this aftermath has only just begun. For me, the greatest tragedy is that these people, these young Americans, are sent off to do this very hard thing, and then they are brought home and just dumped back into their old lives as if nothing has happened. A lot of them feel that no one cares—and I think that that in most cases, they are right. Or maybe we care, but we just don't know what to do with that caring. We don't know how to start the conversation, we don't know ho to ask these people what they need.
"For me that's what this play is about," Myatt concludes. "What do we do now? Should we just bake a cake and say welcome home, fill-in-the-blank, or is there something more we can do?"
'Welcome Back, Jenny Sutter' runs March 20–April 19 at the Sonoma County Repertory Theater. $18–$23; Thursday is pay what you can and veterans get in free. 104 N. Main St., Sebastopol. 707.823.0177.
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