Saturday, September 10, 2011

Real people, not cardboard "heroes"

On this significant weekend, marking the tenth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Armonk Players in Armonk, N.Y., north of New York City, is presenting the play "The Guys."

It was written by journalist Anne Nelson, a faculty member at my alma mater, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. I'd read about the play and the feature film that starred Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia, but never seen it and finally caught up with it this weekend, of all weekends.

Written just a couple of months after the attacks, it is a work of drama and of journalism. Through a mutual acquaintance, Nelson was approached by a fire captain who had been asked to deliver eulogies and was literally at a loss for words to describe the men he lost.

In the play, the writer, Joan (played by Jeanne McCabe) interviews Nick (Dick Nagle) about Bill, Jimmy, Patrick and Barney, drawing out their unique qualities in order to help Nick tell their stories. The script makes a quiet comment on the overused word and concept of heroes. "All this hero stuff? That wasn't Bill," says Nick, who describes a quiet, dependable kind of guy. The fire captain is clearly under great stress, as he tells the journalist several times, "I just don't know where they went," referring to confusion over where exactly his men were killed.

Joan, in awe of the firehouse world and a culture she comes to know through Nick's recollections, tells him, "This is all I can do - words," but he assures her that is exactly what he needs. For my part, I was very affected by the play's illustration of the writer's place in the world - finding the right words to make sense of things.

The two actors were highly skilled, but I thought McCabe was just a little too low key and it was a little difficult to hear all the lines. Nagle actually is a retired New York City Fire Department lieutenant and brought a wonderful gentlemanly presence to Nick. The scene where he enlightens Joan about the difference between "engine" and "ladder" companies was delightful.

After the performance, there was a talkback with the audience and we heard more remarkable stories. One woman brought her elderly father, also retired from the fire department and spoke about the loss of her cousin in the twin towers - a woman who had served as her floor's fire warden. Another man, a current firefighter, related how he and some off-duty colleagues commandeered a mail truck ("and that's a federal offense") to get down to the burning trade center.

Florence came with me to the performance. She was just four years old in 2001 and on the drive home we talked of her memories of the event. I still have the drawing she made of a plane heading toward two rectangles. Because she was a little child, she drew faces at the windows of the plane, and they are smiling.

Tomorrow, I'll be in the soprano section of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and we will sing part of Faure's Requiem and we'll remember.    

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