As Threshold Repertory Theatre's The Guys begins, the room darkens, and a recording of panicked voices fills the air. Emergency dispatchers call out indecipherable commands against a background of static until a woman's voice comes on the line. "It's so hot!" she cries. "I'm gonna die. It's so hot. I'm burning up! Help!" Then her voice is gone. The mood of the theater darkens. No one moves. No one seems to breathe.
"New York, my beautiful, gleaming, wounded city," a woman says as she walks onto the stage. Joan, played by Pamela Nichols Galle, explains that she learned about the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Towers when her dad called from Oklahoma and told her to turn on the TV. Joan called her husband who worked on 31st Street, and he and his co-workers watched the destruction of the second tower from their window. Joan recounts the confusion of the days that followed, and her frustration at not being able to do anything to help. Visiting her sister in Brooklyn, she learns of a fire captain who needs to write eulogies for his men and is struggling with this overwhelming task. Here is what I can do, Joan, a former reporter thinks, I can help this man write the stories of his men.
Fire captain Nick Flanagan, played by Jeff Albertson, strides onto the stage, and the rest of the play is centered on the conversation between this unlikely pair. The meeting is awkward at first. Joan offers Nick coffee, and within moments, their polite chit-chat is demolished when Nick tells Joan he lost eight men and asks, "What am I going to say?" The heaviness in the air is palpable and like Joan, the audience seems to take a collective deep breath. How is she going to comfort this man? Joan picks up her pen and gets to work, telling him, "We need to give the families memories they can recognize." Ordinary guys in extraordinary situations, she says, a statement that is simple and devastating.
Four eulogies are written that day about Bill, "a regular guy;" Jimmy "the probie;" Patrick, Nick's best friend; and Barney, who everyone loved. There are small comforts and moments of laughter when Nick tells a funny story about how Barney still lived with his parents even though he was 30 years old or how they were all terrible cooks. In between recollections, Joan speaks directly to the audience. The interruptions works like a moment of reflection in literature, where the author allows the reader a chance to look back on what just happened. "Nick and I weren't supposed to meet each other," she says. "People all over the city were jumping tracks, going outside their normal lives." Through Joan, we're reminded of the good things that can come from catastrophe and the beauty that exists side by side with the pain.
The tough guy fire captain continues to describe the rest of his men, and an intimacy between interviewer and interviewee is evoked in the sharing of stories. The closeness is heightened when, after talking about dancing, they get up from the couch to tango. The action is sweet and sad and, unfortunately, a figment of Joan's imagination. "Of course, that never happened," she says. There is a more subtle intimacy that develops in the shared pain as Joan works to translate Nick's stories into something beautiful. "As a writer, this is all I know how to do," she says, and we see that her words are no simple act.
In his dress clothes, Nick comes to the front of the stage to read the final eulogy, and when he pauses, Joan tells us she wants Sept. 11, 2001, to go backwards. "I want them back," she says. Joan tells us to think of the planes flying backward, the fire trucks backing into the firehouse and the men returning home. The powerful, intimate conversation reminds us that people need to tell their stories.
Piccolo Spoleto. The Guys. $15. June 2 at 5 p.m., June 3 at 3 p.m., June 4 at 1 p.m., June 7 p.m. at 7 p.m., June 9 at 5 p.m. and June 11 at 12 p.m. Charleston Acting Studio, 915 #E Folly Rd., James Island. (866) 811-4111.