Death flaps by at least a few times in every play about war, but it sits perched on the shoulder of “The Poor Itch,” the Public Lab’s posthumous production of John Belluso’s sprawling, truncated drama. An engrossing metafiction of branching plot paths, the play treats its unfinished status as an advantage rather than a handicap, much the way Belluso was said to have treated his own confinement to a wheelchair. “Nothing’s going like I thought it was gonna go,” muses the main character, but maybe that’s the point.
Director Lisa Peterson has built this play out of five scripts, drafts A through E, each of which follows disabled veteran Ian (Christopher Thornton) through the aftermath of his honorable discharge. Belluso couldn’t be less interested in the minutiae of life in a wheelchair. Instead, “The Poor Itch” is more involved with what Ian did in Iraq, and why — a question he’s having some trouble with, too.
“The Poor Itch” is not about discovering your identity so much as recovering it: What kind of a person is Ian, now that he’s back from his tour? He’s changed physically (here the play is heartbreakingly perfunctory; everyday things are now hard, and that’s that), but he’s also changed mentally and emotionally.
For one thing, he’s having nightmares about a door his dead buddy McGowan (Marc Damon Johnson) keeps warning him not to enter. Other parts of his dreams are less certain — sometimes he’s in the middle of combat with McGowan, sometimes they’re at Walter Reade, and frequently the two men are floating down a river on a raft. Where are they going? What will happen when Ian looks behind the door? Ian’s rich dreamlife points at his worst secrets, things that hurt him but also help to explain him.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Ian starts off with a year’s supply of oxycodone and a renewed friendship with his shady buddy Curt (Michael Chernus). Pretty soon, he doesn’t have either. But he does have a burgeoning, warped relationship with Curt’s wife Erica (given wonderfully trashy life by Susan Pourfar) and is godfather to their impending child. But wait, there’s more — possibly more than one play can hold. Ian is also trying to get close to his pretty, married in-home nurse, Katie (Alicia Goranson) and deal with his mother (Deidre O’Connell), who lets him live with her since her apartment is on the ground floor.
There are questions raised here that Belluso might have found time to answer, had he drafted the play again: Is Ian actually the child’s father? When does he break off his relationship with Erica? These are things we’ll never know, and that may be for the best. The human elements in this play are deeply messy and inclined to stay that way, and Peterson’s refusal to arrange them into an artful pattern gives “The Poor Itch” much of its strength.
It also gives the play its most interesting structural device: When one of the drafts diverges from the others in a significant way, someone rings a bell and the scene starts over from the narrative fork. The choose-your-own-adventure trick starts slow in the first act and then picks up speed in the second, eventually metamorphosing into brief sketches from Belluso’s notes, read aloud by the actors with the explanation “scene unwritten” tacked on.
Things don’t resolve neatly in this play, Peterson seems to be telling us, because things don’t resolve neatly in general, as evidenced by Belluso’s death in 2006 at age 36.
In a smart performance, Chernus takes Curt from adorably ursine pal to nasty addict and back again. Curt does something so stupid it necessitates his hasty exit, but life goes on. Ian gets himself evicted by his own mother, but life goes on. Only the dreams stay the same, and those offer Ian his only real hope of redemption.
Belluso put it best, by accident, in a note to himself he wrote near the end of the play, describing a scene in which Ian reconciles in the waking world with the singing Iraqi translator (Piter Marek) he’s been dreaming of. “He decides to talk to Ian, and he shares with Ian words of profound wisdom; a poetic expression of reconciliation tied together by the threads of progress and shaped by the hard-edged tools of history,” Marek reads. “Scene unwritten.”