Warrior Writers at Wilma's Theater's Veterans on Stage

Paula Vogel's Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq continues its month long premiere run at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia through April 22 coinciding with a series of tie-in events with veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Actors from the cast of Paula Vogel's new play Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq had the night off performing on April 8, but they were in the theater for Veterans On Stage to present excerpts from new plays written by veterans. Vogel did not write Don Juan in isolation, but was in residence at the Wilma for several months and over the course of a year had been interacting with the vets, some of them already writers, to hear about their experiences as soldiers, as research for her own play.

Veterans writers with cast members of Don Juan (Front) : Michael P. Toner, Kevin Basl, Maurice Emerson Decaul, Madison Cario, Jenny Pacanowski, Susanne Rossignol; (Back): Sarah Gliko, Melanye Finister, Brian Ratcliffe, Yvette Ganier, Walter Bilderback, Paula Vogel, Blanka Zizka, Lindsay Smiling, Hannah Gold, Kevin Meehan, Patreshettarlini Adams, Keith J. Conallen.(photo: courtesy of Wilma Theater)

The 'warrior writers' have been in workshops with Vogel while she was in residence at the Wilma developing her play which deals with many issues of military returning to civilian life. It is part of Wilma artistic director Blanka Zizka's wide ranging initiatives to involve the Wilma Theater with community initiatives. Zizka said that she felt so disconnected to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and wanted to do a play that addressed their issues. The play was developed with Vogel in residence working directly with the actors and interaction with from the veterans.

In addition to being a distinguished playwright of The Baltimore Waltz, The Long Christmas Ride Home and How I Learned to Drive, for which Vogel won the Pulitzer Prize, she teaches script writing at, among other institutions, Yale University and regularly runs writing "boot Camps" she calls them, at universities around the country.

Also participating in the veterans events is Theatre Communications Group and nationwide organization of theater professionals and Blue Star Families, an organization that facilitates military personnel access to arts and cultural organizations.

Before the staged reading of excerpts from the veterans' plays, Elizabeth Heisel, a director for clinical operations at Philly's VA Medical Center in told the audience ""There is never a single facet or single truth that can encompass the whole of war, but what we have through the creativity of these veterans here tonight... that gives us insight that we might otherwise not see."

Actors from 'Don Juan' presented a staged reading of excerpts from the veterans' plays-
'A Day at the Office' and 'Skull and Bones' (by Kevin Basl), 'Magi' (by Michael P. Toner), 'Don Juan, the Video Game' (by Bryon Reiger), 'Leda' (by Madison Cario), 'Girl Veteran' (by Susanne Rossignol), 'Dog With Two Flashbacks' (by Jacob Siegel), 'Rush' (by Maurice Emerson Decaul), 'The Green Ambulances' (by Jenny Pacanowski) and 'New Baghdad' (by Steve Scuba).

Don Juan reaction

In 'Don Juan' Vogel's distorts time and space to realize Juan's inner struggles of an American vet who has returned to civilian life. He is searching for his girlfriend on the streets of Philadelphia, while dealing with a range of PTSD and losing his sense of what is real. Everything, including the stage, which is raised and pivoted to various angles to depict scenes on the battlefield, barracks in Iraq to Philly locales that touch down in the Divine Lorraine hotel, Osage Avenue, South Philly, Olde City and a colonial morgue.

Kate Czajkowski and Keith J. Conallen in Paula Vogel's Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq (photo Alexander Iziliaev)

The play has gotten many rave reviews (and a few lukewarm responses from critics) but audience response to the unblinkingly honest material has been varied. Zizka notes that there has been an overwhelmingly supportive from veterans and by area students who attending the Wilma's special series of morning performances.

Kevin Basl, one of the Veterans on Stage playwrights, presented excerpts from his play 'A Day At The Office' about a reservist who thought she was going to be stateside, returning to school, finds out she will be redeployed in Iraq for another year. In a letter to Vogel and Zizka, Basl 's wrote how moved he was by the complex issues tackled in 'Don Juan':

People often characterize PTSD as an action movie going on inside one's head, complete with explosions and blood and screaming. While some may certainly experience those things at times--or rather impressions of those things--I think of it more as a dark lens that drops over one's perspective. Ghosts and shadows make for a more accurate representation, at least from what I've learned.

A woman from the audience "I saw this as art and responded that way, but also as vital information. As a civilian there is no way to imagine war and what happens there."

Melanye Finister plays several characters in Don Juan, including the matron in the already famous Lorraine Hotel scene "Doing this play was such an unexpected privileged. Life changing for many of us. I didn't realized I would meet these vets and build relationships with a community that I would have had the opportunity otherwise," Finister observed, "These writers are amazing people, with remarkable stories, with truth, that needs to be told. Because too often, it is something that we, as a culture, does not really want to know about. "

Don Juan Comes Home Iraq runs through April 20; For complete information about performances and related events go to wilmatheater.org

2014-04-13-IMG_0524.jpg Wilma Theater lobby after staged reading of play excerpts written by veterans.(photo Lew Whittington)