The late John Belluso’s The Poor Itch was unfinished at the time of his death in 2006. Director Lisa Peterson and a committed cast — all of whom participated in several developmental workshops of the play — are presenting the work in a fully staged production that takes into account multiple drafts of the piece. The end result, now on display at The Public Theater, is a stunning theatrical work bursting with emotional power that seems more “complete” than a large number of other plays I’ve seen this season.
The Poor Itch centers around Ian (Christopher Thornton), a disabled Iraq War veteran who must adjust to life back in the States without the use of his legs, and with the knowledge of the unpleasant things that he did during the war. He is alternately helped and hindered by his mother Coral (Deirdre O’Connell), best friend Curt (Michael Chernus), Curt’s girlfriend Erica (Susan Pourfar), and pretty young nurse Katie (Alicia Goranson). But as Ian wryly remarks to Katie, the people whom he was relying upon to help him get through his crisis are “more fucked up than I am.”
Ian keeps dreaming about the war. More specifically, he imagines himself and commanding officer McGowan (Marc Damon Johnson) with a singing blind translator (Piter Marek) traveling down the Tigris River together on a raft. There’s also a mysterious door that floats in and out of Ian’s dreams, and what’s behind it holds the key to the guilt, anger, and self-hatred that he feels.
While the play is certainly an anti-war piece, it is no simplistic screed. Ian reacts resentfully both when people critique the war and when they celebrate him as a hero. As in most of Belluso’s other plays, the central character’s disability is presented in a complex manner. Ian’s physical limitations clearly pose a number of challenges, but it’s the emotional wounds he’s carried home from the war that turn out to be much more damaging.
Thornton — who is himself disabled — is absolutely phenomenal, capturing all of the complexities of Belluso’s flawed anti-hero. A rambling phone message Ian leaves for Katie on New Year’s Eve is both funny and immeasurably sad. When Ian lashes out at his mother, it’s frightening, and when he comforts a despondent Curt, the moment is extremely poignant.
O’Connell also delivers a superbly nuanced performance, demonstrating the love Coral has for her son that can just as quickly turn to fear and maybe even hatred. Chernus gets the majority of the comic moments within the play, as well as one of its most devastating monologues. Pourfar has a quirky presence that is bizarrely endearing while Goranson’s plain-speaking character manages to be simultaneously brusque and charming. Both Johnson and Marek provide a firm grounding for their roles, which are more symbols than flesh and blood characters. Rounding out the cast are ensemble members Renaldy Smith and John Ottavino, who are most often seen in military fatigues.
The unfinished portions of the play are usually represented by actors ringing a small desk bell and announcing the version of the script being used. Actors will rewind to the point of the change, and play out a new scene. These multiple versions of Ian’s reality are thematically resonant, and they contribute to the disorientation that results from both his dreams and the drugs he takes to dull the pain.
Descriptions of scenes that Belluso thought about putting in, but never finished writing, are also read to the audience. Some of these take the work into even more fantastical flights of fancy, and it’s interesting to know some of the potential directions the play might have gone. The only misstep within Peterson’s production is the inclusion of a note that the playwright left describing the character of Ian and what makes him tick. It’s completely unnecessary, as what’s presented to us in this unfinished play already makes that abundantly clear.