So believable is Lanie, an ex-marine and Ithaka’s main character, it’s hard to believe Portland playwright Andrea Stolowitz didn’t serve in the armed services in Afghanistan. This is a result of the taut, crisp writing, thorough research and actor Stefania Indelicato’s fully committed performance. Hands clenching, eyes wild, Indelicato doesn’t simply walk the stage, she shreds it in her work boots. She’s not only emotionally into it but she’s physically perfect: tall, strong, and rangy with dark, curly hair yanked back into a ponytail.
Like a festering sliver, Indelicato gets so deep under Lanie’s skin it will be a wonder if she doesn’t suffer post-traumatic stress disorder when the show closes.
We all know about PTSD or we think we do. And while we might think it’s a relatively new disorder, just ask Odysseus whose return to Ithaka was fraught with obstacles. And if we think we’ve heard it all before, Odysseus (Brent Hirose) sets us straight: we don’t know what war is like unless we were there.
Lanie has returned from combat and “passed” the de-briefing examination. She’s told she’s good to go. But she’s not, she’s broken. Fights erupt with her husband Bill (Adam Lolacher) who loves her but doesn’t want to hear about “people’s legs being blown off.” She doesn’t want to see friends. Everything is “bulls***.” And, having let her cat Pixie out the door, the cat is lost. This seems inconsequential until Stolowitz connects it to the very heart of Ithaka: how do you forgive yourself for a decision you made that had a fatal outcome?
As the doctor, trying unsuccessfully to inject Lanie with a calming sedative tells her, everyone has to find his/her own way to forgiveness.
Appropriate to the disorder order itself, the play goes in and out of reality with nightmares, fantasies and dream sequences. Evie (Yoshié Bancroft), a fellow marine, materializes to give Lanie comfort and advice. Lifting the play out of unrelenting heaviness (although, unbelievably, the opening night audience laughed at much that was not funny), Bancroft doubles as Lanie’s cat Pixie. It’s a stretch that doesn’t completely work: Pixie, in choosing to run away, embraces the risks of living dangerously, which includes coyotes.
Similarly, Evie and Lanie chose the marines and must accept the risks. It’s a stretch but it allows for some cat jokes that dog lovers will love. While appreciating the enlivening effect of all the cat material, Ithaka could have done with less of it.
A brief stand-up comedy act that, we assume, Lanie imagines also lifts the play. A serious line that stands out from the comedy routine, “You are what you think about death,” is worth pondering.
Completing the cast and providing what, hopefully, will bring peace to Lanie, is Desiree Zurowski as Evie’s mother EM.
Many theatre companies could take a hint from set designer Rafaella Rabinovich. Staged alley-style with seats on both long sides of the performance area, there is one major set piece: a set of tracks — like a four-meter railway — on which rests a wheeled, wooden platform. Performers move this platform back and forth and it becomes a car, a hospital bed, a roller coaster or whatever is required. Simple, spare, wonderfully effective.
Stolowitz interviewed many ex-marines and their families while researching Ithaka and it paid off. Directed by Jessica Anne Nelson (artistic director of Excavation Theatre) and co-produced by dream of passion productions, Ithaka has the ring of truth. That core question is still rattling around in my head: how do you reconcile a decision you made that had a fatal outcome? Most of us pray we’re never put in that position.
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Ithaka is at Havana Theatre until May 14. For tickets, go to ithaka2016.bpt.me.