A balloon suddenly popping may do little more than startle most people, but for a soldier returning home from Iraq, it can evoke some painful memories.
That's just what it did for Jenny Sutter (Marisa Dannielle Hebert), a Marine just returning from Iraq in the Springs Ensemble Theatre's latest production, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter.
Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the loss of her leg, and not ready to allow her family to see what the war has done to her, she gets on a bus and goes wherever it will take her, which ends up being Slab City, Calif., a desert shanty town outside of Los Angeles. Along the way, she meets Louise (Christine Vitale), who decides to take her in.
While in Slab City, Jenny gets to know the "residents," all of whom are there because they are dealing with — or running away from — issues of their own. "Since the Slab City people didn't know who Jenny was, it allows her a certain amount of freedom to become who she needs to be and create the new normal," says director Jodi Papproth.
Buddy (Mike Miller) becomes a sort of father figure, tender and understanding, yet funny and endearing. Abused as a child, and with a body that's twisted and deformed, he offers a unique sort of empathy for Jenny. He steals the show with his quirky delivery and hilarious lines. (Picture an old man in a Hawaiian shirt and cargo pants, declaring, "To be perfectly honest, I do miss my hair gel, but if there is someone out there who needs it more than I, who is suffering from some real cosmic hair troubles, I am certainly willing to sacrifice my sense of style for a good cause.")
Hebert's portrayal of a wounded soldier is spot-on, with the fear, discomfort, pain, anger and sadness in her demeanor all feeling real. You'd believe she's had some experience with the military, but the actress insists, "It's just pretend." She did have some help from a soldier with PTSD, who helped her to understand the emotions that occur with it.
Coming into this play, Papproth didn't have much experience with the military, either. Though her brother was in the Army, she didn't have any perspective on what a female Marine would be going through. So she did her research.
She spent some time with a woman who works with the national Wounded Warrior Project, along with a male Marine who happened to have the same leg injury as Jenny, and a woman who works at A Family Haven and has a patient who is going through a situation similar to Jenny's. With the perspectives of those people, it allowed the cast and production team to understand where Jenny would be coming from.
Though this play could easily have gone the way of many "returning home" stories, with the main character returning to his family and not being able to adjust, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter takes a different angle on it. For starters, the main character is a woman, so she goes through things a little differently; for instance, we see her asking all the men for a kiss, because she doesn't think she's attractive anymore.
The fact that she goes to Slab City instead of returning home also gives the story an interesting direction. The old Marine base is called "The Last Free Place on Earth," and its desert setting recalls her time in Iraq, and of her journey out of that life and into her new one.
The other characters offer a deeper understanding into human suffering. As each of them is also going through varying personal issues, they are able to help Jenny on her path to rediscovering herself. They also add some comic relief, which is extremely important to a story that could easily have become unbearably heavy. Moments of deep emotion and sorrow are complemented nicely by moments of absolute absurdity.
The small theater puts audience members right in the play. The actors even refer to them from time to time as members of Buddy's congregation, or guests at the party. With the close proximity, it sometimes feels as though you're peeking through a window at private moments between the characters.
The show starts at 8 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through July 16, with 4 p.m. Sunday shows on July 10 and 17, at 1903 E. Cache la Poudre St. Shows start at 8 p.m. Tickets are $15, or $12 with a valid military ID, and can be purchased online or at the door. Student tickets are $10 for Thursday night shows and can be purchased at the door only.
It's also important to note that the artwork in the lobby of the SET is provided by students participating in Military Creative Expressions, a class offered by the Fine Arts Center's Bemis School of Art in collaboration with Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group. The artists are all stationed at Fort Carson and suffering from a variety of physical and non-visible wounds, such as PTSD.