The Body of an American at Stage Left Theatre is a fact-based play haunted by visions of war and the ghosts that lurk in its shadows. Canadian war reporter/photographer Paul Watson (Don Bender) lives with the ghost of the American soldier whose body is dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, after two US Blackhawk helicopters are shot down in 1993. Watson hesitates before taking the photograph of the desecrated body. (‘If you do this, I will own you forever,” he hears.)
He takes the photo. And he continues to hear and sometimes feel the presence of the dead soldier. A year later he wins the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph of Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland Jr. The image is famous, iconic. The story of the photo and its effect on Watson’s life is dramatized in Dan O’Brien’s tense and complex play.
Watson continues his travel and war coverage over the next dozen or so years. His memoir, Where War Lives, is published in 2007 and he’s interviewed on NPR’s “Fresh Air” by Terri Gross. O’Brien (Ryan Hallahan), a playwright and academic, hears the interview and emails Watson. O’Brien is struggling with writing an historical play about ghosts. They stay in touch.
That’s the backstory of O’Brien’s play, which starts with the “Fresh Air” show and loops back and forth through Watson’s personal life and his war coverage. Sometimes we get glimpses of O’Brien’s past. The two actors play many roles and they also play each other. It’s a one-man show performed by two actors, a creative form of documentary drama. Jason A. Fleece directs with a sure touch for the timing of the highly interactive dialogue between two men, starting or finishing each other’s sentences.
Watson, who was born with a malformed left hand, spent much of his career in war zones, often barely escaping injury and death. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as an inherited illness, but keeps on with his work. Throughout the play, he regales Dan with stories of risks, escapes and nightmarish scenes. But, “with a camera in front of your eye, you cover your face and you focus only on the good shot. You shut everything else out.”
Dan says, “Paul, I can’t help feeling you’re not being entirely honest with me here…. everything has this kind of Hemingway patina to it. This kind of old school journalistic swagger. It’s like you’re trying to impress me.”
Their friendship builds, mostly by email, and they finally meet in 2010 when Watson, who has retreated to the Canadian Arctic, invites O’Brien to visit him in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. The script for The Body of an American results from their many conversations.
This long section of the play, while packed with wit, insights about both men’s lives, and Canadian humor (including references to curling, my favorite Olympic sport) seems partly irrelevant and could have been trimmed substantially.
At the end of The Body of an American, Dan is working on a play in Minneapolis, in a neighborhood called Little Mogadishu. Paul is back in a war zone in Kandahar. He writes to Dan, “Truth is I’m no different than all those Americans driving their trucks in near suicidal conditions in Iraq, just to pay off mortgages in Florida. This is what I’ve come to: I’m a mercenary and a desperate one at that.”
Both Bender and Hallahan give strong performances. Anthony Churchill created the simple two-chair set and the complex and powerful projections that open our eyes to the horrors of war. Stephen Gawritt’s sound design is equally important.
Stage Left Theatre’s The Body of an American runs 95 minutes with no intermission. You can see it through June 19 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Performances are Thursday-Sunday and tickets are $20-30. Buy them online or by calling 773-975-8150.