Since 2001, September 11 has carried a sense of foreboding for many Americans. But what do you do when a date like this is also an anniversary that normally would be a cause for celebration? Southern Connecticut State University is facing this dilemma as it celebrates its 125th anniversary – which happens to fall on September 11. This past weekend, the school presented the play The Guys, by Anne Nelson, which debuted Off-Broadway at The Flea just months after the attacks. The new production not only stars respected alumnus actor Dan Lauria (“This Is Us,” “The Wonder Years”), but also marks the occasion with the solemnity that the date deserves.
Also starring actress Wendie Malick (“This Is Us,” “Just Shoot Me,” “Hot in Cleveland,” “Frasier”), The Guys is about the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Lauria plays Nick, an FDNY captain who lost most of his men at the World Trade Center. Malick plays Joan, a writer living in New York who is dealing with the helplessness of life in the city after that horrific event. Their two disparate lives intersect when Nick seeks help preparing the eulogies for the guys in his crew. In the process of helping to write the stories of the men who lost their lives, Nick and Joan discover a bond as they work through their grief with compassion, humor and a love for their city.
The Guys is a well-crafted production. From the beginning, the playwright succeeds in evoking the feelings of shock and despair that many of us felt as we watched the events of the day unfold, and the lingering grief that many of us still feel. The play starts with filmed footage of the attack on the towers and their subsequent collapse, putting the audience members in a shared state of vulnerability and feelings from which we need to find courage and comfort.
Malick is perfect as Joan, who as the intellectual, worldly writer stands as an observer, lingering just outside the tragedy, wondering what she should do. We are instantly empathetic with Joan as she openly expresses the pain, shock, confusion, and desire to help – to do something – to stop feeling this jumble of emotions and get on with day to day living. She wonders how she could contribute, and gives voice to the many layers of the simple questions, “Are you OK?” and “Is this our new normal?” And even amidst all this confusion, she is able to be a calming comfort to Nick, gently and compassionately drawing out his stories and remembrances of his crew.
Also perfect is Lauria as Nick. With a complete air of just being one of the guys, Nick is the grieving captain of his crew, jumping from disbelief, to denial, to horror, and maybe even a little bit of survivor’s guilt, and paralyzed by the task of writing his colleagues’ eulogies. Joan gets him to open up about his missing crew members. In the process of recalling the day-to-day doings at the firehouse, the two of them are able to craft memorable words about the extraordinary lives of these seemingly ordinary guys.
The crafting of the eulogies from the general give-and-take conversations about the firemen is an unexpected bonus. To take Nick’s words about a member joking, another criticizing the food, another fulfilling his family obligations, and another organizing and building things with his tools, and then create the poetic testaments to these men’s lives that Nick was able to deliver at the services, is a writing lesson in itself. The words are beautiful and lend power to the final scene, with Nick delivering the final eulogy in his dress uniform to comfort a grieving family.
One of Joan’s astute observations about the events at that time is the fact that she never looked beyond the “public shadow” of the people she would pass on the street, and that, “We have no idea what wonders lie in the people around us.” Through Nick’s stories, we get to know the extraordinary men who lost their lives at the Twin Towers, and realize that they were heroes, not because they died, but because they lived. Joan also recognizes that despite the lack of any logical connections, the events of September 11 bring her and Nick together. They are able to bond and find comfort through their shared grief and through their shared humanity. That is an important lesson for all of us to remember.