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‘Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter’ gets a powerful staging at Next Theatre

Lily Mojekwu stars as title character “Welcome Home Jenny Sutter” Next Theatre.

Lily Mojekwu stars as the title character in “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” at Next Theatre.

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When: Through Dec. 23

Where: Next Theatre, 927 Noyes, Evanston

Tickets: $30-$40

Info: (847) 475-1875, ext. 2;

Updated: December 23, 2012 6:35AM

We know very well that some of the worst casualties of war are not those soldiers who return in coffins, but those who come home with their psyches, their bodies, or both so altered and broken that they feel like the walking dead.

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter,” Julie Marie Myatt’s wise, searing, often mordantly funny play — now in director Jessica Thebus’ superbly realized Midwest premiere production at Next Theatre — deals with that subject in the most insightful and original way. Intriguingly, what sets her drama apart from similar stories is that it places the trauma of one particular female soldier — a U.S. Marine who has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whose young daughters have been cared for by their grandmother — alongside that of many different people (non-veterans) whose lives also have gone awry for reasons neither they nor we can fully fathom.

With her heavy duffel bag slung over her shoulder, and a prosthetic leg hidden by pants, and betrayed only by a slight limp, the sullen, wary Jenny Sutter (played by Lily Mojekwu, whose luminous face says as much, if not more, than her words), has just arrived in California. She is at a bus station, and just a few hours’ ride from home, but she is not at all ready to make the trip. And though she has a cell phone in her pocket, she is far from ready to make contact.

Jenny’s temporary lifeline and detour arrive by way of an encounter with another “traveler” — the hyperactive, decidedly eccentric and needy, yet easily engaging Lou (Jenny Avery, Next’s artistic director, whose bristling, achingly comic, spot-on performance suggests she should get away from her desk far more often).

Lou invites Jenny to stay with her in Slab City — a sort of latter-day hippie commune populated by midlife misfits. The community just happens to be built on the cement remains of a military base (Rick and Jackie Penrod’s tented set is perfection). And it is there that Jenny sleeps (fitfully), is awkwardly embraced by a society best described as “marginal,” and begins the rudimentary healing process that might enable her to go all the way home.

Aside from Lou, a rootless woman at odds with her family, but possessed by a powerful hunger for life (she has, at one time or another, been addicted to everything from alcohol and sex to raisins), there is Buddy (Lawrence Grimm), her occasional lover, and the commune’s low-key, self-styled preacher. Myatt has penned some inspired off-kilter sermons for Buddy, and Grimm, in an unforgettable turn, delivers them in bravura style.

Also on the premises is Donald (Kurt Brocker, at once subtle and hugely charismatic). A jewelry-maker with a troubled if unexplained past, he is handsome, angry and lost enough to trigger desire in Jenny, and to serve as a very tentative test of any vestige of her femininity.

Cheryl (the ever-droll Hanna Dworkin), is the resident Esalen-style therapist who knits steadily as she doles out advice to Lou and others. Back at the bus station there is the attendant, played energetically by Justin James Farley, but Jenny is not at all ready to open up to HIM.

Myatt’s beautiful writing, paired with this immensely moving Next production, captures the existence of both those who are desperate to feel but can do nothing but talk, and those who feel far too much but are too wounded to speak. Quite a feat.

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