“This is how you survive a war.”
These are the first words confidently uttered by Elise Sabatto (Kat Wodtke), the determined lawyer at the center of Forward Theater Company’s first-ever commissioned play, “Learning to Stay.” Her husband, Brad (American Players Theater regular Jeb Burris) has been deployed in Iraq for the past several months, but she’s got it all figured out, with strategies in place to deflect the well-wishers, focus on her job and spin some wish-fulfilment over the eventual return and reunion.
She has no idea that what she’s experiencing is only the opening skirmish. The full-on assault is yet to come, and it’s going to get ugly. Very, very ugly.
The script, written by American Players Theater’s Jim Devita, is based on local author Erin Celello’s 2013 novel chronicling Brad and Elise’s struggles to cope with the devastating trauma—he’s sent home after narrowly surviving a car bombing that claims the rest of his squad—which has clearly changed him. On stage, Burris plays the changes through Brad’s symptoms: He drinks, he twitches, he’s directionless. The fuse on his temper is so short it’s nonexistent. Soon, his struggles are threatening not just her home life, but making it impossible for Elise keep up with the increasing demands of her job.
Wodtke and Burris make a convincing on-stage couple, even though we don’t get much of a sense of the man Brad really is until much later in the play. (Michael Herold’s turn as Brad’s good-old-boy father offers the biggest clues). Fear, doubt and bluster war on Wodtke’s face in an affecting way that generates plenty of audience sympathy. The odds are stacked against her, but she scraps on nevertheless.
The play’s supporting cast is uniformly terrific, from Di’Monte Henning as a supportive fellow lawyer motivated by more than simple kindness, and Malkia Stampley as the wife of one of Brad’s late squad members.
Mike Lawler’s set, meanwhile, is interesting in several ways. Towers of file cabinets line the back of the stage, echoing the way Elise’s mounting career responsibilities loom over her like the teeth of a formless beast. They also resemble the bars of a portcullis, reinforcing the ways she feels trapped by her circumstances. There are gaps between the cabinets, allowing for multiple cast members to hover in the background, watching (or judging) Elise as she tries to find a solution to her plight. Director Jennifer Uphoff Gray cleverly deploys the ensemble members in the gaps to deliver snippets of frustrated telephone calls from her law firm and the faceless bureaucracy of veterans’ services. It’s a great visual metaphor for the way Elise feels assaulted from all sides, like rapid-fire bullets at a rapidly crumbling bivouac.
While the performances resonate, the script has a few rough edges. One of the scenes, in which Brad takes Elise to L’Etolie (one of several Madison restaurants that get name-dropped in the script) only to freak out after mistaking a shattered glass for a bombshell, feels like something we’ve seen several times before. A later scene, in which Brad can’t seem to break out of the violence of a waking dream, is much more chillingly effective at portraying the uncontrollable depths of his PTSD. The life advice Elise cites from her father when things are going south is literally right out of a Disney film. And the play’s closing lines feel a little too tidily didactic.
Despite some minor warts, “Learning to Stay” is a solid triumph. Successfully developing and launching new work is the Holy Grail of local professional theater. After three years of development, Forward has grabbed it with both hands.
"Learning to Stay" can still be seen in the Playhouse of the Overture Center for the Arts on April 6, 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. and on April 8 and 9 at 2 p.m. For ticket information, click here.
Aaron R. Conklin writes his award-winning theater blog Stage Write for madisonmagazine.com.
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