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Former Sonoma students star in ‘Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter’

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A disabled U.S. Marine returns home from the war in Iraq. Instead of reuniting with her children, she takes a detour.

The gripping play “Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” was written by Julie Marie Myatt. Wendy Wisely, an adjunct faculty member at Santa Rosa Junior College, directs the local production, opening this week.

“I first saw the play at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival several years ago,” said Wisely. “I loved it and was thrilled when the theater department selection committee picked ‘Welcome Home’ for our current season. Though the story is serious in nature, there is much humor throughout, particularly in the dialogue.”

“It is not anti-war or political,” she stresses. “It’s about one woman’s journey, yet the broader theme is the struggle communities, friends and families have in finding ways to support and welcome vets returning home.”

Following the premiere in Oregon, “Welcome Home” was presented at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and toured throughout the country to strong reviews.

In the play, Jenny Sutter returns from Iraq only to discover that she is not ready to resume family life. She takes a side trip seeking to find herself. She lands in Slab City, the site of a former Marine base, now home to RVs, scrub brush, cactus and quirky residents. (Slab City in southern California is an actual place that also served as backdrop for the book and film “Into the Wild.”) On settling into the ramshackle community of kindhearted misfits, Jenny meets others whose lives are like hers — messy and complicated. Some have served on the battlefield while others face personal battles of their own. They seek to help Jenny reconnect and emerge from her self-imposed shell of isolation.

We first meet Jenny when she encounters Hugo, a funky fellow who runs a bus station in the middle of nowhere. With few passengers and little to do, Jenny becomes an easy target for his chatter. Griffin Tatum and Ryan Sayler alternately play the role of Hugo.

Tatum, a graduate of Sonoma Valley High School, came to acting at a young age through participation in Sonoma’s Broadway Bound Kids programs. Tatum is now a student at SRJC enrolled in the theater arts department.

“SRJC offers the opportunity to participate in the full range of theater production, from acting, set and costume design, makeup, lighting and sound,” he says. On reading the script for “Welcome Home,” he was excited to audition.

“The writing is sharp and the characters memorable,” Tatum said. “Previously I had only performed in musicals. So acting in a drama allows me to broaden my scope. Hugo comes across as lazy so that was a challenge. It’s a side of me I try to suppress. He’s usually flipping a cigarette lighter, so to get in character I walk around doing the same. And I like that there’s dual casting. I can observe how someone else interprets Hugo.”

And that someone else is Sayler, who lived in Sonoma with his parents for several years and attended Flowery Elementary. He started acting in the fall of 2016.

“I went to an audition on a whim and landed the part of Mayor Shinn in ‘The Music Man,’” he said. “That got me addicted to performing on stage. I haven’t stopped since.”

“Welcome Home” will be Sayler’s fourth performance in an SRJC production.

“I see Hugo as irresponsible,” Sayler says. “So I think back to when I was 19, and a bit like that. Fortunately, I grew out of it,” he laughs.

“In his unique weird way, Hugo is fun. He provides comic relief.” Sayler believes that “Welcome Home” is the kind of play that, if you see it once, you’ll want to come again.

“Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter” opens this week with performances scheduled for March 9, 10, 11 and 14, 15, 16, 17 at 8 p.m. The play is recommended for audiences ages 14 and above. Following the Sunday, March 11 and Wednesday, March 14 shows there will be a panel discussion with military veterans and members of the cast.

Tickets range from $12-$18 and may be purchased by calling 527-4307 or through the online box office at theatrearts.santarosa.edu.