September 11th isn't going anywhere. Two years, three years, five years, 10 years after it happened, people will still be feeling it. They will still be dealing with it," says Ralph Hatley, who plays Nick, the emotionally traumatized fire chief in Ann Nelson's The Guys, a two-character play, which takes place in the immediate aftermath of 9-11. But what exactly will people be feeling? What exactly will they be dealing with in all these years to come? And how does this play, written while the toxic fires still smoldered at ground zero and rushed to the stage before the air was fit to breathe, ultimately fit into the big picture?
Conventional wisdom says that 9-11 changed everything for Americans, but looking back with only two years' perspective, the one thing clear is that we have no perspective to look back with. The image of the crumbling towers has yet to find a moment's rest. It's been used to sell everything: T-shirts, picture books, country songs, a made-for-TV movie, and a made-for-TV war in Iraq.
"I can't look back at what happened in New York and imagine what it has to do with Iraq. There's just no logic there," says Christina Wellford Scott, who plays Joan, the writer who agrees to help Nick assemble eulogies for eight of his men who died when the first tower fell. "But that's not what this play is about. This is more of a tribute. It's not political at all." That said, she adds, "None of us were sure how anyone would respond [to the production]."
In The Guys, the notion of terrorism is broached only once, when Joan, who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, takes a phone call from her family in Oklahoma. Her father tells her to turn on the TV. She, in turn, calls her husband who works near the World Trade Center and tells him to look out of his window. They all see the second plane hit. The postmodern age goes out with a bang. They speculate but they do not accuse.
The Guys dwells on lives that might have been, picnics left unattended, broken-down cars left to rust, and little girls who will miss their daddy. It is, as Scott says, "a tribute." It is the first major work of art to emerge from our great national tragedy and the first major work of kitsch. Our wounds are still too fresh to experience it as the latter, but every word is carefully chosen to tug on our heartstrings, as if something so awful needed such obvious sentimentality to summon the tears. But only two years removed from the horror, we can take comfort in familiar benedictions. And we can forgive the playwright for telling every story three times. She is, after all, a journalist by trade.
"Plumbers and carpenters first, intellectuals to the back," Scott's fictional character announces helplessly. Two years after the fact, real faith-based foreign policies have imbued this line with new meanings the playwright could never have intended. But Scott resists the urge to play for pathos. She is a jangle of nerves, her body twisted by tension into a series of right angles. It is Hatley, however, a former policeman and training-academy instructor, who keeps The Guys from becoming an instant period piece. His complete understanding of what it means to work in a field where death is just another occupational hazard comes through.
"I've been in firefights before," Hatley says, referring to shootouts, not flames. "You don't think about it until after it's over with, but you are surely, most definitely afraid. And your whole life really does pass before your eyes. But it's like, Okay, I'll deal with all of that in a minute. This is my job. I've got to deal with [the danger] right now."
The Guys offers no real perspective on 9-11. It's just another chance to remember how bad we felt and how helpless in its wake. Written before we knew that the EPA lied about the breatheability of the air at ground zero, before our first soldier died in Iraq, before we lost the trust of the many nations that mourned our loss like their own, The Guys contains much of the very thing 9-11 allegedly took from us: innocence. That is, perhaps, its most appealing quality.
The Guys plays Theatre Memphis' Next Stage through October 18th.