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Dispatches from the Front:
Three plays use different ways
to chronicle the war experience

by Web Behrens
Special to the Chicago Tribune
published January 19, 2007

You never have to sift through theater listings for long to find upbeat escapist fare or another beloved revival. In today's tumultuous times, that might be exactly the on-stage balm some theatergoers seek. But not all.

"Some people want to be entertained by the words of Noel Coward, and others want to be entertained by chewing over great ideas," observes BJ Jones, artistic director of Skokie's Northlight Theatre--which often produces new works that aim to provide food for thought. The curtain is about to rise on a thoughtful play at Northlight, and it's in good company: No fewer than three new productions grapple with the Iraq War.

Two are works of fiction, inspired by current events: Northlight's "Lady" (opening Jan. 31) and "Harmless" (Saturday at TimeLine Theatre) are single-act, three-character dramas set in the Midwest. Both use the war to explore the mental and emotional toll of American life in uncertain times. After all, as Jones notes, "There are precious few new plays right now that don't have the pressure of the war or world politics informing them in some way."

The third show puts the war front and center. Griffin Theatre Company's "Letters Home: Voices of American Troops from the Battlefields of Iraq," which opens Sunday, imports its true-life drama directly from overseas. Actors on stage use the words, and bring to life the stories, of actual soldiers serving in the Middle East. "In theater now, everybody says, 'This is a metaphor about the war, but it's not really about the war,'" observes Bill Massolia, Griffin's artistic director. "Well, this really is the about the war, the words of the soldiers themselves talking about their experiences."

To hone this piece of theatrical journalism, Massolia spent the last five months compiling and editing the letters from various sources, primarily a book recently written by author Frank Schaeffer and a series from The New York Times. Massolia's inspirational moment came while watching an HBO documentary based on the Times articles. To his mind, "The documentary put a human face on [the war] without politicizing it. I thought that was really interesting."

One epistle leapt out at him, written by Michelle Witmer before she died in Iraq. Massolia contacted her family, who live in a Milwaukee suburb, to ask their blessing to include her words in his piece. "The first question her father asked me was, `Why do I want to do this?' Everybody tends to think artists are going to make a statement. I told them, `Honestly, I don't have any political intention. I just notice that Americans don't feel [directly] connected to this. They just see things on TV.'"

The Witmers agreed.

Massolia underwent a similar vetting from Schaeffer, whose book of soldiers' letters, "Voices from the Front," grew out of networking he did after his son (now a student at the University of Chicago) served in the war. "He found that military families were isolated today because the majority of Americans don't know somebody actually fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan," Massolia explains. "He gave a voice to all of these people."

Griffin's adaptation brings those voices to a new venue. "The letters are written under pretty difficult circumstances--yet the eloquence of some of them . . . [these are] from people who might only be 18 or 19 years old," notes Massolia. Throughout the show, his amalgamated script presents a number of letters from several soldiers, developing a handful of real-life narratives: "We have a soldier from Iowa whose family sends him seed corn. He plants a crop of corn in the middle of the desert. ... Then we have stories about soldiers getting killed. So it gives a really great spectrum of stories and experiences."

The TimeLine and Northlight plays provide other points on that spectrum, imagining closer-to-home scenarios in part inspired by real events. In "Harmless," a small Midwestern college is roiled by short story penned by a returning Iraq War veteran. "Lady" follows three close friends, one a U.S. congressman, during a downstate Illinois hunting trip. Their loyalties are tested by the politician's war-influenced political shift to the right. (Playwright Craig Wright's first draft predated last year's infamous hunting accident with Vice President Cheney.)

"Harmless" playwright Brett Neveu, a Lincoln Square resident, doesn't know anyone currently deployed, though his brother served in the first Iraq War under the elder President Bush. Neveu explains that his play "comes from the perspective of civilians dealing with the war. . . . It's about the extremes of violence that happen during war, and it's also about the responsibility the general public has toward returning veterans and how they're viewed when they come back. How can we relate our circumstances to theirs?"

As for "Lady," which Jones commissioned, the director openly acknowledges, "It's Craig's intention--and certainly mine when we were cooking this play up--to take a snapshot of the tenor of the times. Perhaps the decline of the American Empire is really starting to accelerate. The issues of the day have altered who we are and how we view the world, and our friends, people we've known for years, are very different."

All of the artists involved assert that the plays present a number of perspectives. But do any of them worry they'll rule out a certain audience by addressing challenging issues in these fractious times? "I prefer to think we're ruling an audience in," Jones chuckles.

"It seems to me this war is the No. 1 thing on people's minds right now," Massolia says. Some people will interpret "Letters Home" as being gung-ho military while others are likely to see it as anti-war. "They may draw those conclusions before the show even opens. I'm not concerned about it. I just think it's important to tell that human side