By Toby Zinman
For The Inquirer
Wow. Paula Vogel's new play, Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq at the Wilma Theater, is a powerful anti-war play. It is also powerfully theatrical and emotionally and intellectually challenging. In other words, it's terrific.
This premiere production, under the daring direction of Blanka Zizka, makes its timeless point at a remarkably timely moment, just when various sex scandals are making headlines as male military officers exert their power over the women under their command.
Don Juan (Keith J. Conallen), up to his usual seductive, ruthless no-good, is here a Marine captain, back in Philadelphia after four deployments in Iraq, suffering from unbearable pain in his head and unbearable numbness in his soul.
He is searching for Cressida (Kate Czajkowski), his "girl back home," and his search takes him through time as well as space: the 17th century Tun Tavern where the Marine Corps began, Osage Avenue during the MOVE bombings, the Mutter Museum, archive of the gruesome and grotesque, Old City now and then (Ben Franklin makes a cameo appearance). This is Philadelphia as hell and Don Juan is in it, with echoes of Shaw's Man and Superman, and of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, both plays about betrayals and betrayers.
Against the Marine Corps' motto, Semper Fi ("always faithful"), is a litany repeated over and over: "Betrayed, abandoned, lied to." This describes the general condition: Cressida by Don Juan, numerous conquests by Don Juan, Mother Theresa by God, female soldiers by their recruiters ("You will never deploy"), soldiers by their daredevil officers ("Suicide Alley"), the Iraqi citizens by the U.S. military ("I had a chance once to save a child").
The cast is extraordinarily good, especially Conallen who makes Don Juan a person rather than a swaggering cliché and Czajkowski who makes Cressida a person rather than a pitiable victim. Playing many roles are Melanye Finiser, Yvette Ganier, Hannah Gold, Kevin Meehan, Brian Ratcliffe, Lindsay Smiling and Sarah Gliko who sings a knockout of a song about the three doors of hell.
The Wilma's enormous stage capacities—ramps, lights—have never been put to more spectacular and more necessary use (lighting by Thom Weaver, set by Matt Saunders), and the physical choreography is stunning (Michael Cosenza is the fight coordinator).
Vogel's voice has always been courageous, daring to say what needs to be said, unafraid of moral ambiguity. Her plays (Baltimore Waltz, How I Learned to Drive, Hot 'n' Throbbin', among many others) are all wildly different from one another but none falls into the easy trap of linearity. Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq is a memory play, spiraling back through time and event.
Near the end of the play we hear Cressida ask Don Juan the same question she asked him at the start, "Are you lost?" And now we know the answer.
Wilma Theater, Broad & Spruce Sts. Through April 20. Tickets $35 - $66.Information: 215.546.7824 or wilmatheater.org
NOTE: Starting next season, the Wyncote Foundation is subsidizing Wilma tickets: $25 and $10 for students. This is excellent news.