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Revisiting The Towers

Eight eulogies down, many more to go

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As the videotapes played over and over on September 11, 2001, our reactions to the spectacle of the Twin Towers' collapse -- and the colossal loss of life -- were beyond words. But as Anne Nelson's The Guys eloquently testifies, words were urgently needed.Nelson was a journalism professor with no previous theater experience. During a visit to her sister's home in Brooklyn, Nelson's sister received a phone call from a friend. There was a fire captain who needed a writer to help with eulogies that he had to deliver for eight of his men who were killed at Ground Zero.

As Nelson's fictional surrogate, Joan, declares, "All over the city, people were jumping tracks." People whose lives would never have intersected were suddenly needing each other, helping each other. The fire captain needed the words to comfort the families of the men he had worked with. Nelson needed an outlet for helping during the grim cleanup effort. With past experience as a war correspondent in El Salvador, she felt like this was her opportunity.

So Nelson met with the fire captain a few times, probed his feelings, and gave them voice. But the full emotional impact of these post-9/11 encounters went beyond what she was capable of expressing in her customary idiom of journalism. Instead, with the encouragement of a theater director whose Tribeca company was struggling in the aftermath of 9/11, Nelson wrote her first play -- over eight evenings after putting her kids to bed.

Within 12 weeks of the attack on the World Trade Center, Nelson saw her play produced at the Flea Theatre -- seven blocks from Ground Zero -- starring Bill Murray and Sigourney Weaver. Over nearly two years, that proximity to Ground Zero has increased the reliquary value of what Nelson produced in her feverish obsession and haste.

Watching the current joint production of The Guys by The Abbey Players and Belmont Community Theatre, I found myself recalling the feelings and thoughts that consumed me during the weeks and months after those nightmare jets wreaked their damage. Vividly reawakening those memories led to an unsettling parallel reaction -- measuring the enormous psychological and intellectual distances I've traveled since then. My guess is that most people who enter the Haid Theatre at Belmont Abbey College will have similar reactions to The Guys.

Two wars and two regime changes later, it may actually be useful to revisit the event that lit the fuse and changed the world, even if we're seeing it from an oblique angle. I'd forgotten the mighty stream of obituaries in The New York Times. Those obits -- and their awesome inadequacy -- snapped back into focus when the fictive Nick Flanagan told Joan that the eight eulogies she was writing were just the first of 350 men who were missing from the stations under his command.

The Abbey/Belmont production, though far from perfect, doesn't undermine the integrity or authenticity of Nelson's offering. In fact, the spare visuals and the intense sound design by Gary Sivak are quite powerful.

Simon Donoghue's direction, as usual, is resourceful and finely detailed. That isn't always a felicitous approach with Millie Hopkins playing Joan. Hopkins takes infinite care in stylizing her delivery and hardly any care at all in immersing herself into Joan and her torment. The glib artifice of Hopkins' performance is more pervasive when she addresses the audience directly with her narrative. When Joan is engaged in helping Nick to articulate his appreciation for his fallen comrades -- "You want to give people something they recognize, not a plaster saint" -- Hopkins is more readily swept up by the drama of Joan's mission.

You really do want to reach out to Lou Dalessandro as he struggles to capture the steeliness of Nick along with his tenderness, his wholesomeness, his guilt, and his pure, raw pain. "Two weeks before he died," he reminisces, "I told him welcome to the best job in the world." Sometimes, Dalessandro does the better acting simply because he gets out of the way of the words.

There's a special empathy for FDNY at Belmont Abbey. Jimmy Riches, one of the school's all-time best basketball players, left during his senior year to follow in his father's footsteps as a firefighter. He was in the north tower of the World Trade Center when it collapsed.

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