by Michael Meigs
The attack on the World Trade Center towers ten years ago was variously recalled and commemorated around town last week in schools, churches, lodges, assemblies and official ceremonies. The tone varied, according to the sentiments and the level of extrovert patriotism of those involved. The Austin Statesman ran a distasteful series of "Where were you then?" articles, as if any random individual's reaction to the flagrantly mediatized events could validate the nation's shock and anger. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society did a rousing Sunday afternoon musicale of patriotic song, vivid enough to bring a mist to the eyes of this Federal pensioner, followed by a celebration of New York City with amusingly post-fitted G&S pieces.
The theatre folk had their own commemoration, thanks to two of my favorite Austin actors, their director Gabe Smith, and the City Theatre. I attended that Saturday afternoon. The house was not full but it was strongly sympathetic to the undertaking; looking around me, I recognized faces of live theatre performers from across the town. The Guys, sponsored by the virtually anonymous Flash Productions of director Gabe Smith and Ashley Edwards, was offered only for two weekend matinees, a thoughtful scheduling that made it possible for Austin performers to attend.
Fittingly enough, the set was simple, in fact, almost bare -- a simple living room placed before a screen, with the detritus of City Theatre's ongoing production of Hair visible at the depths of the stage. One could seek out ironies in that -- the two very different visions of New York City and the wider nation, set almost 35 years apart -- but no one in the audience was trying to be so clever.
Playwright Anne Nelson reduces the catastrophe to human proportions, giving us only two characters of flesh and blood on this stage. Joan is an Upper West sider, formerly a risk-it-all journalist but now settling into married life with children and predictabilities; Nick is the captain of a New York City firehouse faced with the daunting responsibility of delivering eulogies at ceremonies to be held for the half a dozen firefighters from his company who disappeared along with more than 300 others in the inferno of that day. Nick's no public speaker; he has yet to come to terms with the fact that he missed the action and their sacrifice because he wasn't on duty that early morning.
Suzanne Balling is the protagonist in this 80-minute action, given the task of stepping forward from time to address the audience directly, having volunteered for the task of capturing Nick's comments and transforming them into dignified, vivid texts appropriate for ceremony. Opposite her is Scot Friedman, reticent, courteous and reluctant to intrude. As they work through the process of interview, recollection and reformatting, we gain vivid pictures, individual by individual, of five of "the guys" -- first in conversation and then via those same images and comments recast as eulogy, read aloud by Nick. We get an idea of firehouse life and camaraderie; we understand that these were not giants but men with families, foibles, friends and interests.
And that's really all there is to it. Yes, we do get some auto-psychoanalysis from Joan, frustrated by her inability to do anything other than work with words in response to the disaster; she is deeply impressed by the fire captain's virtue, which surpasses mere heroism, and in a moment of dizzy wish-fulfillment she imagines him teaching her to tango. As she comments, if their lives had taken their normal courses, these two individuals would never, never have met; their cooperation in preserving the vivid memories of the disappeared serves as a mostly unacknowledged act of mutual healing. This piece was developed and produced by the Plea Theatre in New York City only three months after the events. Its intimate focus and restrained style make it as relevant today as then.
Suzanne Balling has such natural grace and attractiveness that she fits only approximately into the personality of a hardcore New Yorker (even though Joan tells us early on that she's originally from Oklahoma, and from my days there long ago I know that the City is populated largely by outsiders who've made it their own). I suspect that in the original stagings there was a sharper internal battle between Joan's guarded Upper West side detachment and the sentiment evoked by their sharing. Scot Friedman, one of Austin's most accomplished character actors, gives a subtle portrait of a man who is unaware of the complexity of his own emotions. He is casually dressed in a NYFD sweatshirt and distracted most of the time; but for the final scene he appears in formal uniform, white gloved and convincing, with the audience serving as those gathered for the memorial service. He acknowledges the dignity of duty and sacrifice, just as Nelson's script does.
Thanks, friends, for that quiet seance of honor and remembering.
Click to view program leaflet for The Guys by Flash Productions