Wednesday, October 7, 2015


By Toby Zinman



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

NOTE: Starting next season, the Wyncote Foundation is subsidizing Wilma tickets: $25 and $10 for students. This is excellent news.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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