BWW Review: LEARNING TO STAY drives message at Forward Theater

BWW Review: LEARNING TO STAY drives message at Forward Theater

The set itself is cold and industrial. Perfect in its minimalistic design. The scene changes are set through use of light and sound. The set remains the same. In the vein of Outside Mullingar, the actors pantomime most of their props. Unlike Mullingar, I don't find that distracting at all in this play.

We meet Elise (Kat Wodtke) in her office. Her husband, Brad (Jeb Burris) is away, in Iraq, fighting. She keeps her cheery disposition and hopefulness by finding rituals to survive it all and sticking to them. She is with her friend Darcy (Malkia Stampley) when Darcy gets the news that her husband has been killed in action. Brad was with him. This is a remarkable scene. I state this because both the female actors in this scene could have overplayed it, however both and especially Stampley, were subdued and refined. We see the character Darcy goes through this news with subtle poise and just enough emotional response to gently tap the audience into empathy. Already there were wetted faces and people around me sniffling.

Elise is told to go home and wait to find out Brad's fate. We find out that Brad is wounded, but alive, and may be home as early as Christmas. She begins anticipating his return, watching YouTube videos about reunions and envisioning how theirs will be. She is excited, yet guarded due to her own version of survivor guilt. Then one day Elise returns home from work to find Brad, Standing like a ghost, in their kitchen.

There is at first a spark of passion that soon ignites and seemingly consumes their every waking moment. It is only when Elise must return to work that things begin to slip for Brad. With his wife gone back to work Brad has lost his distraction and now must deal with the war. His episodes of instability start small and crescendo until, after a night terror, Elise must dis-arm him terrified that he will kill himself or her. Elise's inability to cope, coupled with Brad's refusal to get help lead to Elise moving Brad to his father (whom they both dislike) in small town northern Wisconsin.

This play is wonderful and the cast is very strong. The tension throughout the piece seems to come from both party's incapacity to be vulnerable, to be honest with each other and their friends about what they are going through.

This play, written by James Devita, is a commissioned piece based upon the novel by the same name, written by local author Erin Celello. The topic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) in war veterans is both poignant and necessary during our time. To raise awareness on these issues may be vital for the survival of our veterans.

However, upon reflection, I need to ask who the intended audience is? Is it the general public? If so, this piece does a wonderful job of shedding light on a dark subject that no one really wants to talk about. This piece can bring to the foreground an issue that is too often hidden among both vets and the administration.

If the intended audience (or one of them) are veterans and their families? If so, I worry that the message is missing a better call to action. I am particularly disturbed by the fact that Brad and Elise do not take a more active role in their recovery. Brad refuses to seek help and does not take responsibility for his own recovery. His road to recovery seems more happenstantial when he finds an injured dog in the woods one night and serendipitously connects with a small not-for-profit group near his dad's place that trains service dogs. Elise, to her benefit recognizes that she cannot keep going as is, quits her job, and makes a decision to change things, though it may not be to help her situation with Brad, but simply

because she can no longer cope. In the end, they seem to happen into a "happily ever after". They commit to stay with each other and make a new life together. With 20 veterans committing suicide a day (Military times 07/07/2016), I would have appreciated a stronger message to seek help early and often.

I liked this play. Don't get me wrong. The talk backs are important, ...vital in this case. The cast is strong, the writing solid and the direction moving. Go see Learning to Stay. Support these efforts to entertain AND educate, to use theater for positive social change.

Learning to Stay

by James DeVita
Adapted from the novel by Erin Celello
MARCH 23rd - APRIL 9th, 2017

The World Premiere of a Play Commissioned by Forward Theater

Directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray

For ticket information please contact


2 hours

Pre-show talkbacks will be held on the following dates on the Rotunda Stage:
THU, MAR 23 @ 6:30 PM
SUN, MAR 26 @ 1 PM
THU, MAR 30 @ 6:30 PM
SUN, APR 2 @ 1 PM
THU, APR 6 @ 6:30 PM
SUN, APR 9 @ 1 PM

THU MAR 23 @ 7:30 PM
FRI MAR 24 @ 7:30 PM
SAT MAR 25 @ 7:30 PM
SUN MAR 26 @ 2:00 PM
WED MAR 29 @ 7:30 PM
THU MAR 30 @ 7:30 PM
FRI MAR 31 @ 7:30 PM
SAT APR 1 @ 2:00 PM
SAT APR 1 @ 7:30 PM
SUN APR 2 @ 2:00 PM
WED APR 5 @ 7:30 PM
THU APR 6 @ 7:30 PM
FRI APR 7 @ 7:30 PM
SAT APR 8 @ 2:00 PM
SAT APR 8 @ 7:30 PM
SUN APR 9 @ 2:00 PM

Photo Credit: Zane Williams

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