MADISON, WISC.: During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Erin Celello often attended military funerals as deputy press secretary for then-Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle. Already traveling around the state three or four days a week, the governor dropped all plans if a military funeral came up, Celello recalls.
“I had a glimpse into what it was like for these families who were making the ultimate sacrifice, and I will never forget that experience,” she says. “I still remember almost every one of those families, seeing them and their heartbreak and devastation.”
But equally compelling to Celello were the families she wasn’t seeing. Hearing news stories of soldiers coming home with traumatic brain injuries, she started thinking about the other military families who must have been struggling—albeit in different ways.
“Some of these families, they make the ultimate sacrifice in that their loved one never comes home,” says Celello, now a Madison-based author and creative writing professor. “And for other families, they’re still making sacrifices in that their loved one never comes home the same.”
That idea turned into Celello’s second novel, Learning to Stay. Published in 2013, the novel focuses on Elise, a military wife who must navigate a new life after her husband returns from war. Although Celello hadn’t planned on Learning to Stay being anything more than a novel, the story will soon appear onstage at Forward Theater Company, March 23-April 9, with a series of events relating to the military family experience scheduled throughout the run.
Jennifer Uphoff Gray, artistic director for Forward Theater, says the theatre had been looking for a script that dealt with America’s 21st century wars for several years. It wasn’t until a patron sent a copy of Learning to Stay in late 2013 that the theatre felt they had the right material and called in Wisconsin actor and writer James DeVita to adapt the book. Gray says she appreciated that the story felt real, yet left readers with hope and avoided being didactic or sugar-coated.
“What moved me about this piece is that it’s really the story of the wife and her struggle to help her husband and also protect herself, and recognizing that she is a survivor of trauma as well,” Gray says. “What we keep hearing from the people with experience who’ve read the script is how untold that perspective is. So we really want to make sure that not just the vets but their families see this piece, because they need support too.”
To that end, Forward Theater sought guidance in creating additional programming from the Madison VA and Wisconsin Veterans Museum, as well as the Dane County Libraries and the Wisconsin Book Festival. In addition to several book discussions and panels for the public, there will be a private, free “safe space” performance specifically for area veterans, their families, and service providers. Mental health staff from the VA will be on hand during the April 4 performance and talkback to assist anyone who may need support. Gray says she expects the 340-seat Playhouse at Overture Center to sell out, noting that this special event was partly made possible thanks to a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Learning to Stay received its first public performance at the 2015 Wisconsin Wrights Festival. Following the staged reading, DeVita wrote another draft incorporating feedback from Celello and Gray, the cast, and audience. He also sought feedback from military members, their spouses, and VA employees.
DeVita says he stayed close to Celello’s original narrative in creating the six-person play. Two actors portray the couple at the heart of the story, while an ensemble of four performs several other roles and serve as a sort of Greek chorus. Gray praises DeVita for adding the Greek chorus, which calls to mind The Odyssey, perhaps the original story of coming home from war.
The theatrical adaptation of Leaving to Stay is framed as if it is happening in Elise’s head, allowing the audience to see into her memories and hear the voices both urging her to stay in and leave her marriage. Working off this concept, Forward Theater plans a sparse design, minimalist costuming, and staging that will “keep things constantly in motion,” Gray explains.
Learning to Stay marks the first time DeVita has adapted a work set in his home state and written by a local living author. Though he has no military background, he says he’s attracted to stories that compel audiences to ask, “What would I do?”
“We all like to think that if we were in those circumstances, we’d do anything and everything, but it’s hard,” DeVita says. “It is the story of one woman’s struggle to stay with the marriage and the man she loves, who is now different.”
Forward Theater artistic associate Karen Moeller, also an actor, has portrayed voices on both sides of that struggle through the play’s develoment. At the initial reading in 2015, Moeller read the ensemble part of Darcy, a military wife whose husband did not come home. She enacted an altercation between Darcy and Elise after Elise confessed she was considering leaving her husband.
“In her mind, if your husband came home, you’ve got to stick with him, because she didn’t have that option,” Moeller says. “It tore my heart out just to think how hard it is.”
In the upcoming production, Moeller will portray a character on the other side of the spectrum: a woman who did leave her military husband. Moeller says she expects the experience of portraying these characters will stick with her, especially during the performance for military members.
“I think that night, knowing that the people sitting out there in the seats have been through this, the responsibility to get it right, to do right by them—I don’t know what to expect,” says Moeller. “I think it’s going to be incredibly powerful to us onstage, and I think it will be incredibly powerful for the audience. I think we will be changed by that performance. I think what we hear afterward will change us, and I’m very much looking forward to it and daunted by it.”