Over the past 10 years, reacting to 9/11 has often meant nothing more than reacting to terrorism: tightening security, warring on terror, or — most predictably — acting terrorized. But for those who lived close to the Twin Towers or the Pentagon, and for those who lost friends, family, or co-workers, the impact has been far more visceral and the hurt far more personal. The personal dimension tends to hibernate in the public mind until the media turns its focus away from our enemies, real and imagined, across the oceans and circles back to the survivors of 9/11 and the rebuilding efforts at Ground Zero.
So it's doubly appropriate that Davidson Community College is staging Anne Nelson's The Guys on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Cameras were back at the original impact points as we commemorated the anniversary this past weekend, and we experienced one of those rare opportunities to revisit the question of how well we've responded to the needs of those who suffered personal losses back on 9/11/2001 while so many of us diverted ourselves by treating the deep wound Al Qaeda inflicted to our national pride.
Nelson modeled the character of Joan upon herself, an Oklahoma journalist lured to the Big Apple by its bustle and excitement, now a successful writer with experience as a war correspondent in Latin America. In the immediate aftermath of the carnage at Ground Zero, a firehouse captain is referred to Joan because of her writing and editing skills. From wildly divergent backgrounds, they would never have met if it weren't for the 9/11 catastrophe.
Because of the attack on their city, Nick and Joan realize they've become kindred spirits. As the FDNY representative who must deliver the eulogies for the eight firemen lost from his station, Nick feels powerless to capsulize the essence of the men into neat four-minute speeches — and powerless to bring comfort to those who are grieving. Reeling as much as anyone who was living in Manhattan, Joan was feeling a parallel frustration over not being able to do anything to help the victims and start the healing.
Directed and designed by Melissa Ohlman-Roberge, The Guys sits well at the intimate Armour Street Theatre with Marla Brown and Lou Dalessandro in the starring roles. Premiered in New York less than three months after the planes struck the Twin Towers, Nelson's script has one minor flaw. It compresses the action of writing the first four eulogies into the space of a single 70-minute act. When Pi Productions presented the play at the Palmer Building in 2007, with Pamela Galle and Gerald Keith Colbert as the leads, director Vito Abate seemed to break up the unity Nelson imposed on the script.
From what I remember, Galle struggled more to produce her ready-for-primetime eulogies. Putting the brakes on the process also helped to simulate a growing camaraderie between the fireman and the writer. In restoring the unity — having Joan write all four eulogies during her first encounter with Nick — Roberge calls upon Brown to look like she's doing it all effortlessly on-the-fly. Yet Brown is actually more compelling in her scene work with Dalessandro than she is when she steps out and speaks to us as our narrator. Makes sense, really. Joan is in her comfort zone writing the eulogies, so I'm prepared to cut her some slack when she doesn't prove to be a slick stand-up performer.
Colbert brought the added zest of a New York accent to his version of Nick that you won't find here, but Dalessandro does the hairpin turns of emotion admirably — weeping over his losses one minute, laughing the next as he recalls the guys' idiosyncrasies, and offering comfort to Joan when she breaks down. But the real raw truths here aren't in the performances or the playscript. They're in the real guys who live on in these imperfect eulogies: Bill Dougherty, Jimmy Hughes, Patrick O'Neill and Barney Keppel.