Call it Don Juan or Don Giovanni, the Don Juan story, handed down through time, is pre-loaded with a mix of serious and comic elements and a supernatural dimension. DON JUAN COMES HOME FROM IRAQ, from theater luminaries Paula Vogel (playwright) and Banka Zizka (director), has the gravitas down and doesn’t lose sight of humor, but extra pieces lodge within this puzzle’s slippery treatment of time and reality.
A Marine captain, Don Juan (Keith J. Connallen), is back in Philadelphia after serving in Iraq. Haunted by obsessive love, re-living combat, and recalling bad things he’s done, he’s trapped in an arc of increasing remorse. Less the rogue and carefree rake associated with his name, this Don Juan is more a damaged instrument of a defective system. But even as his offenses are decried and deconstructed, he never completely loses our sympathy.
The play’s interest is divided between concern for returning war-stressed combatants and an incensed protest of the military’s systemic tolerance of sexual abuse against female enlistees. On balance, it’s more about women’s rage than about the plight of this vet or any returning war veterans. The work takes on extra weight with time-tripping Philadelphia components, among them the Divine Lorraine Hotel, the ’85 conflagration on Osage Avenue, and a surprise guest from this city’s remote past.
DON JUAN strongly recalls moments of David Rabe’s THE BASIC TRAINING OF PAVLO HUMMEL, which he wrote on his return from Vietnam. Full of rage and juxtaposed time, it connects scenes through a basic training marching motif. In DON JUAN there’s also a lingering sense of Orpheus venturing into the underworld in search of his lost love.
Vignettes composed of possibly ‘real’ moments mix with distortions within Don Juan’s head. Memory and reality vie in a push and pull that sprawls across the stage. Needed context for the non-sequential nature of events is provided when we see the succession of Captain Don Juan’s encounters through the curatorial eye of the administrator of the Mütter Museum. This unlikely but inspired device holds disparate levels and elements together, at least for a while.
The play tilts and teeters, as does the floor beneath the characters’ feet. Which brings us to the Big Concept set and lighting by Matt Saunders and Thom Weaver respectively. There’s no futzing with decorations or clutter, except for one crazy shopping cart. A massive black platform lifts and tilts dramatically. Radically lighted, it is sometimes smoky and murky, sometimes stark. Arrangements of actors, positioned on and under the flat surface, go beyond realism to provide a powerful expressionist visual experience. Daniel Perelstein’s remarkable sound complements the production design.
A collaborative process undergirds this mammoth work. Director and playwright worked closely together, taking inspiration from their admiration of Ödön von Horváth’s feminist-leaning Don Juan Comes Back from the War (1936). The distributive way their work came into being is inseparable from its content. This is both a good thing and a, well, less good thing. Zizka and Vogel’s extended experimental approach included inviting serious input from veterans, developing background, and writing the script specifically for these actors. The cast is brilliant: Keith J. Conallen, Kate Czajkowski, Melanye Finister, Yvette Ganier, Sarah Gliko, Hannah Gold, Kevin Meehan, Brian Ratcliffe, and Lindsay Smiling. When an esteemed playwright writes roles with each actor in mind, and they have an actors’ director, this exciting kind of acting can happen.
But on the down side, the long gestational time fostered mission creep, allowing the play to accumulate aims, concerns, side issues, and enthusiasms like a snowball growing huge as it rolls down a hill.
Where it’s good, it is very good indeed, but DON JUAN COMES HOME FROM IRAQ is a heavyweight contender whose overloaded structure feels like someone tried to ram pieces from different jigsaw puzzles into one big puzzle. Consequently, it comes down to trying to sort through too much, and as the play draws to a close it seems to end several times, only to pick up again. Perhaps for future productions judicious cuts will be made, and a welcome intermission might be added. But in the meantime, this worthy production should be seen in its world premiere. [The Wilma Theater, 265 S Broad St.] March 19-April 20, 2014. www.wilmatheater.org.