By Joe De Rosa
Last Saturday, I took my thirteen-year-old son to see Ghosts of War and Letters Home, two plays produced by the Griffin Theatre company in rotating repertory at the Den Theatre. I know taking a middle-school boy to a pair of shows that aren’t exactly young adult theater might seem like kind of a questionable parenting move, but he likes going to plays. He’s a sensitive kid, creative in his way, likes to read, asks lots of questions, and I have had more than a few big—not always well thought through–ideas for how to teach him about the world. So, when I found out I would be reviewing two war plays by one of the best theater companies in Chicago, I decided to take him with me.
In his masterpiece The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien asks a fundamental question: “How do you tell a true war story?” I believe the attempt to answer this question is essential to our humanity. And it’s not one most artists–or American citizens in general–can answer. I, myself, have no idea.
It seems like we should know by now, but mostly we have failed examples and false substitutes. Movies that glorify violence are so endemic in our culture that the sentence seems almost too obvious to write. And video games? Forget it. For the past few weeks, my kids have come home from school, turned on the PS4, and proceeded to “squad up” with their friends and hunt for people on an island in a Hunger Games style first-person shooter game called Fortnight. Now, I know that most movies and video games are not really trying to answer O’Brien’s question. Fortnight is to war stories what Grand Theft Auto is to driving lessons. Fundamentally, they’re just not the same thing. One is entertainment and the other is… well… one of humanity’s deepest essential questions.
So I took my son to see two plays about war because I wanted to teach him what it means when we make the conscious decision to send men and women off to fight, to kill, to risk their lives. What it means for them, for their families, for us. I wanted to have a have a conversation with my son, a conversation I think we all need to have. And, short of literary masterpieces like The Things They Carried, no medium can come close to conveying a story with as much intimacy and power as small theater.
Ghosts of War, the one-man play based on Ryan Smithson’s autobiographical novel of the year he spent in Iraq as a nineteen-year-old engineer, opens with his reflections on the responsibility he felt in the aftermath of September 11th. Then a 16-year-old high school student from East Greenbush, a small town in New York, Smithson recounts his trip to New York City and the flood of emotions that washed over him as he stood looking at the pictures and letters in the fence that had come to serve as an impromptu memorial to the victims of 9/11 on the site where the Twin Towers once stood. Compelled by the responsibility he felt at Ground Zero, Smithson signed up to serve in the army reserves, married his high-school girlfriend, and was deployed to Iraq with the American occupation forces.
Ghosts of War is limited in scope. Smithson’s account of the year he spent in Iraq as a self-described “GI Joe Shmo” charged with helping repair roads and fortify bases is told exclusively from his perspective. To their credit, Smithson and writer William Massiola, who adapted the novel for the stage, avoided the impulse to cast these experiences as representative of the war writ large. They let the stories–acted in a blazing, tour de force one-man show performance by Sam Krey–speak for themselves. Krey’s versatility is on full display in a performance that calls for him to run the gauntlet from teenage boy trying to make sense of a senseless attack, to soldier trying to make sense of a war, to veteran returning home.
Bringing together Smithson’s story and Massiola’s adaptation, Jason Gerace’s subtle but effective direction, John Kelley’s lighting design, Alan Donahue’s set design, and Stephen Ptacek’s creative sound design provide the perfect foundation for Krey’s stellar storytelling performance.
Ghost’s strength comes from Smithson’s observations. His position as a soldier stationed in close proximity to the combat zone gives him the ideal–relatively speaking–place to observe the realities of war. Presented as vignettes punctuated by life lessons, Smithson’s happy-go-lucky, optimistic brand of youthful energy, mixed with his sincere desire to do good, smooths the rough edges of the war. Near the end of the play, Smithson admits that while the war left him scarred, there’s a part of him that misses the time he spent with soldiers that had come to be like family.
Ghosts reveals no great insights about war, but the story is compelling in its honest portrayal of the day to day experiences of a young man trying to do the right thing in a dangerous place. And the combination of Smithson’s heartfelt, energetic storytelling, Massiola’s thoughtful and judicious adaptation, and Wrays high octane stage performance, make Ghosts of War a strong hour and twenty minutes of theater.
As we walked out the theater doors and turned south on Milwaukee, I asked my son what he thought of our first play. “It was really good,” he said. Then added, with some relief, “To tell you the truth, I thought it would be a lot sadder. But it worked out for him in the end.”
The time between plays gave us a chance to go on a quick culture tour of Wicker Park. It was cold and rainy but we had a good time walking together and talking about the neighborhood and how it had changed over the years. After introducing him to the iconic Reckless Records and Volumes Bookcafe, a recent addition but already a neighborhood fixture, we stopped by the Standard Bar and Grill for dinner. Honestly, as I watched the boy eat his grilled cheese sandwich, I felt a little relieved. It had occurred to me at various points in the day that my plan to teach my son about war might involve an element of what now appeared quite clearly to be low-grade emotional trauma.
Like most kids his age, and virtually everyone in America, he has seen thousands of stormtroopers, orcs, video game villains, and the occasional hero–sacrificed on the altar of plot–perish. But small theater is different. The emotional punch, when delivered by a skillful writer and talented cast, can… well… hurt.
Still, though I didn’t know where to begin with our war conversation, I decided my plan was not a bad idea. At least not yet. Ghosts had provided context. It was more “coming of age” story than emotional traumatic war story, and my son looked pretty happy chomping away at what appeared to be a gourmet level grilled cheese sandwich. I had good intentions, I decided again, and I had never explicitly told him that today was going to be a life lesson kind of day, anyway. So we were probably ok.
When we sat down in the front row to watch Letters Home, I made it a point to tell my son–a boy with a tendency to lounge and yawn a bit too liberally when he is bored–that the actors would literally be a few feet from us and would probably, perhaps unavoidably, be acutely aware of our interest level and body language. My message… no matter what, act interested. This turned out to be completely unneeded advice.
From start to finish, Letters Home is utterly, thoroughly, crushingly, and unequivocally riveting. As described in the promotional material, Letters Home puts the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq front and center by bringing to life actual letters written by soldiers serving in the Middle East… The play, without politicizing, gives audiences a powerful portrait of the soldier experience in the ongoing war.”
Yeah, it sure does. Put simply, Letters Home is essential theater.
The ten-person ensemble cast is extraordinary. With performances ranging from entertaining, insightful, heartbreaking, heart-pounding, and touching, to just plain thoughtful, the Griffin Theater company brings to life the words of soldiers and their families. But it’s more than that. For about two hours the actors pour themselves into the stories of the people they portray in a way that’s both real and soulful. They depict the war from a litany of perspectives: young, old, hopeful, disillusioned, idealistic, pragmatic, and humanistic, each in their own way. In a adaptation of source material that is, at once, compelling, tragic and uplifting, William Massiola weaves the letters and the artists’ interpretations together in a collective character arc that carries the audience through the elation of the initial stages of the invasion and deployment, to the growing sense of unease and increasing desperation, to heartbreak, tragedy and return home. Under Massiola’s skillful direction, the actors move seamlessly and artfully, without a weak link, in formation, delivering one memorable monologue after another.
It is difficult to imagine a role more sacred than those represented in the letters written by the service men and women and their families brought together in Letters Home. At least this was the sense conveyed by the ten beautiful performances that night.
These days we do a lot of our talking in the car. Like most families, we are probably busier than we should be, but car rides give us a chance to catch up. So I had figured that our big conversation about the nature of war–about how to tell a true war story and what it means to send brave young men and women off to fight for America–would happen on the ride home.
Here’s the thing… for most of the ride we were speechless. My son was speechless because he was deeply moved. It wasn’t too tough to put this together because (1) the play was amazing and (2) as we walked out of the theater he looked at me and said, “That was really moving!” As for me, I had no idea what to say. In truth, nothing I could have told him would have been more powerful or insightful than Letters Home. But there was something else, something I didn’t know how to put into words. It is the major question that remains after Ghosts of War and Letters Home, the one neither could answer. Why?
Both plays are excellent, well-produced, well-written, well-acted. Both are deeply moving in their own way. Yet, while both went to great lengths to make the point that the men and women who served and gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan sacrificed themselves to protect our freedom and help improve the lives of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, neither play could address the unspoken dimension of tragedy. They are every bit as relevant in 2018 as they were in 2008.
On the way home, I thought about how I had spent much of the night before watching coverage of the US military strike against Syrian military targets, an attack on a country where more than 2,000 American servicemen and women are still currently fighting ISIS. In response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on its people, the US had launched more than 100 missiles at a price tag around of 250 million dollars. And this was just one moment in broader conflict that appears endless.
This is the unspoken tragedy: after thousands of American servicemen and women and hundreds of thousands of innocent Afghan and Iraqis have lost their lives, after trillions of dollars have been spent, after 17 years of war, peace is nowhere in sight. Things are different, but it’s hard to say they’re better. There are still terrorists, perhaps more now than there were before 9/11 attacks. Iraq and Afghanistan remain in turmoil, and the crisis has spread through the region. Though our nation has moved on to other news, the letters, stories, lives lost, and true costs of war remain. And they keep growing.
So my son and I drove together through the rain towards home, fortunate to have spent the day together, quietly thinking about questions left unanswered.
Ghists of War and Letters Home are now playing in rotating repertory at Griffin Theatre through May 6. Times and plays vary, so you’d best check the website. Tickets can be purchased from Griffin Theatre.