Jeb Burris and Kat Wodtke play Brad and Elise, who struggle after Brad returns from Iraq.
Learning to Stay — the story of an Iraq War veteran returning home to Madison — made the journey from novel to full stage production in just three years. But Forward Theater Company’s new production traces its genesis back to former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle — and way past that to the epic poet Homer.
American Players Theatre journeyman James DeVita adapted Learning to Stay from a novel by Madison-based author Erin Celello, now a creative writing professor at UW-Whitewater. Celello worked as Doyle’s deputy press secretary and speechwriter in the mid-2000s, and was at his side for dozens of funerals. “He had this policy of never, ever, missing a military funeral,” says Celello. “It’s almost indescribable, to see these families and what they go through.”
Celello couldn’t get the images out of her mind, and after publishing her first novel, Miracle Beach, she wanted to write about the impact of wars abroad on families at home. While in grad school, she had picked up Where Is the Mango Princess? A Journey Back from Brain Injury, a memoir by Cathy Crimmins, whose husband was transformed after a boating accident. “He fundamentally changed his personality,” says Celello. “Where does ‘in sickness and health’ reside in a situation like that?”
She began teaching a writing course for veterans and, in 2013, published Learning to Stay, which revolves around the relationship of Elise and Brad Sabato, who find their lives upended after Brad returns from active duty.
In 2014, a theater patron sent a copy of the novel to Forward’s artistic director, Jennifer Uphoff Gray. He wanted the company to turn it into a play. “My reaction was a kind of rueful laugh,” says Gray. The young company was still getting on its feet and hadn’t considered the expensive and time-consuming work of commissioning a play. Then Gray began to read, and realized that the story was too good to pass up. But she wondered who she could trust to develop such sensitive material for the stage.
Enter DeVita. The veteran actor has written three novels of his own and adapted more than two dozen books for the stage. He also happened to be in the middle of his own exploration of themes of war. He was rehearsing for playing the Poet in An Iliad, a heart-wrenching adaptation of Homer’s epic poem, which DeVita performed in a Milwaukee production and later at APT. “This book came to me as I was trying to memorize those words,” says DeVita, who, in the play, recites a list of every known war throughout human history. “It seemed like it had a synchronicity. I read the book and it is, unfortunately, very timely. People are still fighting and suffering from these things they bring home from the war.”
DeVita knows what to leave in and what to take out when moving a work from page to stage, and uses his prodigious acting skills in creating and differentiating characters. “I probably sound crazy. I’m often talking to myself,” says DeVita. “I write it out first, but the actor in me wants to know if it works well in my mouth. I also trust the actors. If they can’t memorize something in rehearsal, there’s often something lacking in clarity.” The play won a coveted spot in Forward’s 2015 Wisconsin Wrights contest, and received a public reading in October of that year.
One performance of Learning to Stay will not be open to the general public, however. On April 4, the audience will be limited to veterans, active service members, families and service providers. Gray says the collaborators have been working closely with Michael Messina, head of the Veterans Administration PTSD clinic, on both the script and ideas for outreach. “We knew we would want to do outreach directed at the veterans,” says Gray. “What they said was they wanted a chance to see the show in a safe, private environment. It’s difficult facing these issues in a big crowd.”
As opening night approaches, Celello’s work is mostly done, but she is thrilled to be working with DeVita, whom she already admired, and Gray, the director, who she calls “a genius.” Most important, she hopes the play helps the general public understand the human consequences of war. “We, as a country, are not super invested in these wars,” says Celello, who believes civilians have a duty to understand what soldiers and their families are going through. “We still have people over there. These people that we have sent on our behalf don’t get to be done.”