Elise (Kat Wodtke) and Brad (Jeb Burris) struggle to adapt after Brad returns from Iraq.
Forward Theater Company’s Learning to Stay takes a heartfelt look at the battles that happen after a soldier comes home from the war. The production plays on Overture Center’s Playhouse stage through April 9.
Jeb Burris, who looks like a G.I. Joe doll, is perfectly cast as Brad, a wounded soldier who returns from Iraq to his wife. Neurotic Elise (Kat Wodtke) has been obsessively watching military reunion videos and — even though Brad’s return isn’t the photo-op she imagined — is thrilled to have her husband home. But before the glow of Brad’s homecoming fades, it becomes clear that the man who returned to her isn’t the same one she married. His wounds aren’t just physical ones. Brad has post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury, Elise suspects.
The story here is Elise’s. We don’t get into Brad’s head much, but instead see the impact of his struggle on the woman who worried and waited for him to come home. Despite her quippy and, at times, comedic voice, Elise is floundering. She doesn’t know how to help her husband. She doesn’t even know who he is anymore.
An ensemble of four actors plays a variety of supporting roles. Malkia Stampley is captivating as Darcy, Elise’s friend who has lost her husband in the war. Stampley’s dance-like movements are irresistible to watch, and her grief shows even when she smiles. Michael Herold, Karen Moeller and Di’Monte Henning also show wonderful versatility as they move seamlessly among multiple characters.
The narrative at times feels predictable, but that’s simply because it rings true. While this particular story is fictional, the shadows of war that come home in the form of PTSD and other injuries and traumas are a reality for many military families. Real life experiences of veterans, their spouses and mental health professionals were used to guide the script, which was written by James DeVita and adapted from the novel by local writer Erin Celello. Forward Theater commissioned the work, making it the company’s first full-length adaptation.
Learning to Stay isn’t always easy to watch. There are some very brutal moments when Brad begins to open up to Elise about his experiences in Iraq. War isn’t an easy thing to think about, but this piece tackles it with good intentions. It’s an earnest look at the devastation of war, especially the wreckage that doesn’t make the evening news but unfolds in living rooms and kitchens everywhere.
Editor's note: This story was changed to reflect the fact that Learning to Stay is not Forward Theater Company's first world premiere. It is its first commissioned full-length adaptation.