If 9/11 is stale for you, or too sad for you or too politically charged for you – this play may open your heart to the pain of real people experiencing loss again. Despite the years that have passed, the sense of shock and unreality that shook the nation on September 11th is palpable again in The Guys.
The impulse towards altruism, the difficulty grasping mass death and the value of individual lives are large topics, but they all come to the fore in this 2-person play written in the months immediately after the 9/11 attack. In the 15th year after the collapse of the World Trade Center, Keizer Homegrown Theatre is presenting The Guys, by Anne Nelson. It runs through September 17th.
The action occurs almost immediately after the attacks, when the city and country were still in shock. A New York City writer helps a fire station captain who has lost eight of his men, by working with him to create eulogies for their families.
Captain Nick Flanagan has to speak at funerals and is at a loss for what to say about the first responders who perished. Joan, the writer, needs this work as well; she’s an intellectual rather than one of the plumbers and carpenters in demand, but has a yearning to contribute. “This is my city, too,” she says. “I want to do something.”
Over the course of the play Nick tells Joan about four of the eight lost from Ladder Company 60 who served under his command, and she in turn transforms his pained and inarticulate anecdotes into prose worthy of being said at funerals. We learn about each of the four with a collection of stories and recollections. The conversations between the two are broken up when Joan addresses the audience directly in interludes that give the play considerable depth.
The actors, Nyla McCarthy and Joe Botkin, show a dignity and conversational ease that is a pleasure to experience. McCarthy’s Joan is lively, curious and generous; Botkin’s Nick is a resilient man who, even as he struggles, knows this loss cannot break him. Together, with their accomplished portraits, McCarthy and Botkin create characters that are believable and likable in even their striving and confusion. The final scene, where Nick presents a eulogy in full dress uniform is powerfully affecting. The characters, like the audience, find some healing in the way art makes tragedy manageable.
It must be said that time and perspective would have made a better script. Perhaps because it was written so quickly after 9/11, The Guys presents four firemen Heroes who seem nearly flawless. There is little conflict between Nick and Joan to drive the action forward (he admires nearly everything she writes, she usually “gets” exactly what he struggles to say), and neither of them changes as much, over the course of their time together, as a better story would have them do. This might be explained by the fact that in those first weeks, simple statements of how a doomed firefighter would say, “Follow me,” or “It’s the best job there is,” were sufficiently eloquent. All these facts still count, and profoundly, but a more mature and considered script would have made a more lasting tribute.
During the run of The Guys, the Kroc Center lobby is hosting a sculpture created from Ground Zero steel by a New York firefighter and a replica of a painting of New York firefighters by William S. Phillips.
“You can’t figure it out; it’s too big for us,” Joan says towards the end of the play. It’s a true statement to this day, but The Guys makes real and important inroads into what is nearly impossible to grasp.
Fear not, fearless followers of the Salem Pimpernel! Jay Gipson-King is only away from his desk, and will return in our next issue! The above review was written by his mysterious ally.