Sadness pervades John Belluso’s The Poor Itch. Given that the play centers on Ian, a young soldier who returns to the U.S. from Iraq without the use of his legs, this isn’t terribly surprising. The piece’s poignancy is enhanced, though, by the inescapable sense that we’ve lost an important theatrical voice: Belluso left it unfinished when he died unexpectedly two years ago, at the age of 37.
In Itch, Belluso takes on the disabled-soldier-returning-home tradition and rips it into the 21st century. He uses familiar elements—Ian living back with his mother, dealing with awkward reactions from friends, and spiraling into drug addiction—but recasts them in a bracingly contemporary light. Additionally, what would otherwise be standard-issue flashback nightmares elevate the play to political fantasia: Current political leaders appear while Ian sleeps, as do Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia. Watching Lisa Peterson’s assured production, which becomes fascinatingly fragmented as it incorporates Belluso’s notes and unfinished scenes, can be like watching Born on the Fourth of July melded with Angels in America.
Christopher Thornton and Deidre O’Connell, playing Ian and his mother, provide exceptional performances in this terrifically complex human drama. Also notable are Susan Pourfar as Ian’s pre-service girlfriend, Marc Damon Johnson as his best buddy in the service, and Alicia Goranson as Ian’s visiting nurse. What will become of the play next remains unclear, but it’s unquestionably an important, haunting addition to the body of work responding to the war in Iraq.