Two Petalumans will take the stage this month in a Santa Rosa Junior College production of Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, a 2010 play by Julie Marie Myatt about a female veteran of the war in Iraq who has returned with an amputated leg and a tortured psyche.
In an unusual twist, two complete casts are rehearsing the play under the guidance of a single director. The casts will alternate in performance March 9-18. One of the casts includes Jenna Rechsteiner and Geoffrey Nixon, both of Petaluma. Rechsteiner plays Jenny Sutter, a single mother of two young children. Nixon plays Buddy, one of the oddballs Jenny meets at “Slab City,” a compound in California’s Sonoran Desert where misfits and drop-outs gather.
In a sense, Jenny has not come home at all.
She’s not ready to assume the role of mother to her children. She’s still learning how to walk with a prosthetic — and how to transition back to “normal” life.
“The play doesn’t spell out the character’s backstory,” said Rechsteiner, “so I made up one for her. She has no husband to come home to. She’s still in recovery and needs a place to clear her mind and work through her issues, including trauma and guilt.”
To prepare for the role, Rechsteiner has done research outside of rehearsals, especially on the subject of prosthetics.
“Movement becomes a balancing issue,” she said.
Asked if it has been painful to develop this character, Rechsteiner said, “No, it is a great role for me. The character and I have some similarities that I work with. We both have our dark demons, including depression at times. I’ve never had to play a role like this before because I’m a character actor more comfortable with comedy. So this role has allowed me to be more truthful with myself.”
As for sharing the role with Allison Paine, the “Jenny” in the other cast, Rechsteiner said, “I really like watching Allison perform, and I love how she’s doing the role.”
Rechsteiner said she has always been into theater.
“I’ve acted, built sets, done makeup,” she explained, “everything that goes into the work. I acted at St. Vincent de Paul High School, but dropped out of theatre for a couple years afterwards. I found that I missed and needed it.”
Rechsteiner plans to transfer to a state university in the fall to continue her studies in theater and graphic design.
One of the characters Jenny meets in the desert is Buddy, an itinerant hippie “preacher.” In Rechsteiner’s cast, the role is played by another Petaluma actor, Geoff Nixon, 30. After building a career as a computer programmer, Nixon has taken the unusual step of becoming a full-time theatre student.
“I always had a love for theatre, but hadn’t made the leap until now,” Nixon said. “It’s amazing being an acting student. It’s teaching me so much about myself.”
To prepare for the role of a preacher, Nixon has had to stretch himself.
“I’m not a ‘preachy’ guy,” he said. “My character is a curious fellow, a bit of a leader who likes to opine to a group on life lessons. I love the play’s subject. It’s mature. My last play was Little Mermaid.”
Nixon, who is a little older than some of the other cast members, says he doesn’t mind.
“It lets me share some of my life experiences,” he said. “I can relate to a guy whose joy in life comes from sharing his story. My character feeds me and I feed him. It’s a back-and-forth.”
Nixon views the play as very relevant to the times, with so many veterans coming back from combat.
“Theater can help us deal with present,” he said. “The JC is full of vets from these wars. The play leaves the audience asking more questions than it answers.
The play’s director is Wendy Wisely, a veteran stage artist in the Bay Area who has taught at SRJC for many years. She said her goal in building two productions at once was to create a single ensemble.
“There is no competition between the casts, just true support for each other,” Wisely said. “The blocking is roughly the same in both productions, as is the through-line, but each cast has been allowed to develop the play organically. It was important to me to have two complete shows but one ensemble in spirit. I wanted everyone involved to feel part of one story.”
Doing two casts at once has required Wisely to be more open and flexible in her interpretation of the characters. She adds that the play is not a statement about all female veterans returning home, but a unique story about a specific individual.
“And it is equally about how others welcome back a veteran,” Wisely said. “The theme is especially pertinent now as we see more vets in the classroom, and also among our colleagues and fellow workers at the college.”