Theater Review: “Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq” at the Wilma

Kate Czajkowski and Keith J. Conallen. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.

The drama Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq now playing at the Wilma Theater tells the story of one Marine’s return home from war and discovery that his lover is missing.  

The play, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Blanka Zizka, is inspired by Don Juan Comes Back from the War, written in 1936 by Odon von Horvath. It is grounded in the experiences of recent veterans, who often return from Iraq and Afghanistan to the U.S., where most of the population has little direct connection with war.

The play addresses post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as pervasive sexual assault on women in the military, but as these subjects are covered by the media, the play does not shed any new light on them. The surreal quality of the narrative, which jumps in time from colonial Philadelphia to the Iraq war, is more confusing than effective.  

More after the jump.
We learn that Don Juan repeatedly forces himself on the women under his command. At one point, Juan comments on how powerless he feels around women in ordinary life: “Only with sex can I reverse the power,” he says to his unit. “Only then can I feel the rush that I feel with all of you brothers.”  

While this is all potentially interesting material for a character, the Juan character, in a fine performance by Keith Conallen, never comes to life. We never learn why he behaves the way he does, and we are left without any catharsis when we see the character homeless in the winter streets of Philadelphia.  

Writing in 2011 in The Tablet, David Goldman had illuminating things to say about the origins of  Don Juan, in a review of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni:

Don Juan was the invention of Tirso de Molina, a Spanish monk from a family of converted Jews. Concealed in its puppet-theater plot is a Jewish joke: Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities.  

Although one would be hard-pressed to find anything remotely Jewish about Vogel’s Don Juan, following Goldman’s logic, the play certainly provides plenty of evidence to support the pervasive sociopathology of daily life in the U.S.  

By far, the best thing about this play is the set design. Set designer Matt Saunders and lighting designer Thom Weaver created a sleek black platform that tilts during the show, intended to destabilize the action.  

But this does not make up for the surprising lack of substance, story or character development in this two-hour (no intermission) show.  

At the Wilma Theater, 265 South Broad Street, Philadelphia, 215-546-7824, through April 20. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.