Preview: There’s trouble afoot when ‘Don Juan Comes Back From the War’

By Sharon Eberson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Nike Doukas and David Whalen. Photo by Julia Rendleman.

Nike Doukas and David Whalen. Photo by Julia Rendleman.

It’s a name so ingrained in our collective consciousness that it’s in the dictionary. The legendary Don Juan has inspired writers to pen portraits of a womanizer or a true romantic or both for going on 400 years. Lord Byron’s epic poem satirized the fictional libertine as the seduced, Moliere sentenced him to “Heaven’s wrath” and Johnny Depp played him as a deluded mental patient in “Don Juan DeMarco.”

‘Don Juan Comes Back From the War’

Where: Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre at Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Oakland.

When: Today through Aug. 31. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, plus 7 p.m. Aug. 27 and 2 p.m. Aug. 31.

Tickets: $25-$48; 412-561-6000 or

Another scenario entirely is “Don Juan Comes Back From the War,” the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre presentation that propels the cad into a midlife identity crisis upon his return to post-World War I Berlin. He’s a broken man, forced to face his demons and subjected to the will of women who might have been a source of comfort in the 1939 play by Odon von Horvath and adapted by Duncan Macmillan.

The British playwright has taken Horvath’s themes in different directions. Mr. Macmillan names the women who were merely archetypes (for example, Mother, Nun 1, Nun 2, Nurse, Prostitute) in the original, has six actresses playing multiple roles and takes a modern approach to gender politics as the women react to the once-proud seducer.

“I wanted to take those archetypes and give them a little more urgency and more identity, and also I wanted to see if I could put onto Don Juan the expectations and projections that are usually put onto female characters,” the playwright said. “So, can there be a scene where he’s the victim of sexual violence, which I’ve not really seen before? Can he be the object of excitement and lust from a group of female nurses because they know about his reputation, but they are not really interested in knowing him and his reasons for it? I thought that was complicated and interesting.”

Seated in a noisy Oakland Starbucks on the morning after his arrival in Pittsburgh, Mr. Macmillan dove into the differences between the characters introduced by Horvath and the ones who will be onstage in PICT’s American premiere of his play.

He likened Don Juan’s experiences to the real-world drama played out by the late Amy Winehouse, in the sense that they are viewed by the world as privileged rock stars, but the reality of their lives is a lot darker and messier than we can imagine.

In the play’s 1918 setting, the ravages of war have been visited on the title character and the women he encounters in head-on collisions of expectation and reality. Early on, Don Juan suffers what may have been a heart attack, or it may be “soldier’s heart,” characterized by the emotional and spiritual scars of war.

The playwright described meeting David Whalen, who plays Don Juan, after the actor’s first rehearsal, and said Mr. Whalen was covered in cuts and bruises. As director Alan Stanford explained it, Don Juan goes through six scenarios as he tries to re-enter society, and in each he has a choice to make. “And he never makes the right choice,” he said.

“At the beginning of the play, he’s returning from war and that’s left its own wounds on him, literally and metaphorically. It’s interesting the research I did on post-traumatic stress symptoms for veterans that suggests that there are all these men who already had stressful situations in their lives that they’d gone to war to avoid, and actually coming back brings it all back again,” Mr. Macmillan said. “I thought that was an interesting thing about … the narratives we tell about ourselves, our nation and our politics. Here’s one of the things that’s so particularly prescient now: Returning from a conflict, how do you simultaneously reconcile what’s happened to you in a war zone and your own country’s complicity in that, and how do you reconstruct your narrative to make it bearable to live with?”

The original production of “Don Juan Comes Back From the War” by Finborough Theatre in London last year was nominated for four Off West End Awards (the equivalent of off-Broadway), including best ensemble. “This truly is an ensemble piece,” Mr. Stanford said, as Mr. Macmillan nodded vigorously.

The focus is squarely on the actors. The set design will be sparse within the thrust of PICT’s intimate Henry Heymann Theatre — a bathtub, a hospital bed, a kitchen table will help locate the scene, and costumes will serve as visual aids.

“A couple of [the actresses] start literally from the raw, and add layers. We don’t change their costumes; we build them,” is how Mr. Stanford put it. “So if you look back … say, at the nun level, you can see the nurse level and the party girl level underneath. It’s to my mind a wonderful way to show the development of what he has been through.”

Don Juan moves from scene to scene, encounter to encounter, on a journey to find the woman he left at the altar, who might have been “the one” — an aspect played up Mr. Macmillan’s adaptation.

“The six women are not cast type-specific to the roles they play; I just got the best six actresses,” Mr. Stanford said. “For instance, the young girl is played by Karen Baum, who is not a young girl. But the essence of what she does with it is something gloriously and quite beautifully grotesque.”

As for Mr. Whalen, one of the region’s most versatile actors, Mr. Stanford said he was the ideal choice for the lead. He had a relative cameo as a butler in PICT’s most recent production, “Lady Winderemere’s Fan,” also directed by Mr. Stanford.

“Not only does he have phenomenal stamina and a great deal of talent, but he’s also at exactly the right age,” the director said. “David has been the matinee idol for so long. He is at an age as an actor when he’s moving on to other roles, and it’s a wonderful thing for an actor to investigate something through his own experience — not the same as Don Juan’s, of course. And I’ll say to his intense credit, he enters into that with such energy and enthusiasm and commitment, it’s a joy to direct him in the role.”

Mr. Macmillan, who had just a few days in Pittsburgh before returning to England and the opening of another play, regretted not being here for PICT’s premiere. “Hopefully, part of the experience for the audience is watching what this actor has to go through, from the starting second of the play onwards,” he said.

Added Mr. Stanford, “It’s quite extreme.”

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.
First Published August 8, 2013 12:00 am