It seems difficult to discern and process the devastation wrought by the 9/11 attacks as we approach the 10th anniversary of that fateful sunny morning in September that changed our lives forever, just as it is difficult to assess the full impact of the damage one decade down the road with over 1 million government documents classified as Top Secret in 2001 still inaccessible to the public today.
Economically, spiritually, politically, and psychologically, the aftermath of 9/11 is something that we live with every day, despite whatever attempts we make to move forward and block the horror of those attacks form our memory banks.
To both commemorate the events of 9/11 and kick-off their 80th season of community theatre, Pit & Balcony will be presenting a special production of The Guys on Saturday, September 10th at 8:00 PM.
Conceived and authored in only nine days by New Yorker Anne Nelson and born out of the imminent impact of horrors experienced at the Twin Towers in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, The Guys tells the tale of two seemingly disparate individuals dealing with the numbing grief of this monumental, life altering tragedy, who through an exercise of shared confidences begin to rebuild a sense of understanding about the nature of sacrifice, and in the process thaw the numbness of despair with the healing warmth of humanity.
In the Pit & Balcony production, under the direction of Linda Rebney, the two-actor performance is rendered by none other than Saginaw County Sheriff Bill Federspiel starring in the role of Nick and Jessica Asiala as Joan, an editor & writer who assists Nick, a NYPD Fire captain, prepare the eulogies for an unprecedented number of firefighters who died under his command that fateful day.
The play debuted at The Flea Theatre in New York on December 4, 2001, and starred Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray and has since been presented in 48 US states and countries around the world, in addition to a film version.
As Director Rebney sees it, there is a special alchemy at work with The Guys. “Basically the story revolves around an editor who 10 days after the 9/11 attacks gets a phone call from a masseuse who’s been giving free massages to rescue workers. The character of Nick is supposed to give eulogies to his firefighters, only he’s not a writer and has difficulty putting what he wishes to say into words, so he solicits her help.”
“He comes over traumatized by all the events that happened and doesn’t think he has anything to offer, but by sitting and talking together, she gets him to start talking about ‘the guy’s, beginning with the basics such as what did they look like, what do you remember when you close your eyes and think of them – and she begins to draw out the story of different firefighters that sacrificed their lives on that fateful day. Through the course of the story, we get a very clear picture of four firefighters that have died, coupled with a person that seems to be outside it all, but is also a citizen of New York City. The story grips you right at the beginning and the play doesn’t seem to need a lot of physical action,” continues Rebney. “It’s amazing how engaging the dialogue is with this production.”
Looking back at their own recollections from 10 years ago, are there things about this production that have changed or altered their own understanding about the events of 9/11?
“The thing that strikes me personally is not so much the events of 9/11, but the fact my brother is a firefighter in the Minneapolis area,” explains Rebney. “There are lines in the story that really put you into the driver’s seat in terms of how a fire department operates, especially when Nick starts recollecting about he knows happened to the guys that day. Also, there is a fair amount of irony that comes out through the script in terms of how some of the guys survived and others did not.”
For Sheriff William Federspiel, he started acting in community theatre back in 2002 with a show called Broken Legs. He cites this current lead role in The Guys has one of his biggest theatrical challenges to date. “Being a public servant and a first line responder, it was important for me and I felt compelled to come down and audition for this role. I’d never heard of it before and got the book and read it and thought it incredibly powerful. This is a very dramatic role and I’m more accustomed to doing comedies and musicals.”
“When Bill auditioned for this role of a fire captain from Brooklyn, I imagined that I was hearing things when he started speaking with this totally believable Brooklyn accent,” interjects Rebney. “But then he explained that his wife’s family is from out east so he’s encountered that type of accent before and is very comfortable with how he talks and delivers the role.”
“I love a good challenge,” laughs Federspiel. “This is another reason I went for this role. There’s a lot of dialogue to memorize, no intermission, and the play is 90 minutes long. I’ve been in shows with up to 25 people and now there are only two of us, but this presents an opportunity as an actor that I’ve never had. I love theatre and the arts and am proud to be doing this.”
As for Jessica Asiala, some of the pivotal points of this production are derived from the way Nelson writes about the relationship between the Captain and his men. “My father is a retired police officer and the manner in which she writes drove home my appreciation for what first responders to,” she notes. “Anne Nelson brings to life the physicality that everybody went through when these events happened. It’s a body blow and you cant breathe and she makes it so you can physically feel what those insiders were feeling when it happened. It’s a fantastic job bringing these qualities to life.”
Ironically, Jessica got her acting start at Pit & Balcony, opening in the production of Grease one week after 9/11 happened 10 years ago. “That’ was the first show I ever did,” she reflects, “and while I’ve done two person shows before, they’ve mostly been comedies. I’ve also worked with Bay City Players and was very involved with the Van Buren Street Theatre for five years with my husband, who passed away last February.”
While each of us have distinct memories of 9/11, are there any insights gleaned from their involvement in this production that have informed or changed their sensibilities about it?
“Not so much in terms of changing my sensibility, but being a first responder myself, we get a little hard around the edges,” reflects Federspiel. “We don’t always open up around our emotions and explore them, largely I think because we’re expected to be constantly out there and you tend to immunize yourself to extreme situations. I’ve been in this business 24 years and I’ve gained a significant amount of insight into firefighters that I never knew that much about before. This was an event that changed our history and the world and to see our brothers and sisters on the fire field and what they experienced that day gave me a greater appreciation for fire personnel, especially.”
What do the actors hope audiences carry away from this performance?
“You see the human side of first responders,” responds Federspiel. “The play doesn’t deal with what happened that day so much as the lives of the guys that died, so I hope audiences come away with an appreciation for what they do. Some of them were bicycle enthusiasts, others were family men, and you don’t always think of that side when you see them out on a call. You don’t always get to see the personal side of things.”
“My hope is for people to go back and remember what these individuals gave for us,” states Jessica, “but also the civilians that were just there at the World Trade Center doing their job and the next thing you know, they’re not coming home to their families. I hope people take a moment to remember that. It’s easy to try and block it out, but important for us to remember.”
“I honestly believe the toughest of the toughest firemen out there will appreciate this production,” concludes Federspiel. “I encourage first responders and their families to come out and catch this performance, as they will definitely take something memorable away from it.”
Tickets for The Guys are $20.00 and the production is being done in collaboration with the 100 Club of Saginaw County, which was created to acknowledge and repay the people who have risked their lives to protect our own, raising money each year for the benefit of families of fallen police officers & firefighters who have been killed in the line of duty in Saginaw County.
While only one production is scheduled, if the performance is a sell-out, an additional performance will likely be added.
For more information or to purchase tickets, you can phone 989-754-6587 or visit Pit & Balcony Community Theatre at 805 N. Hamilton Street in Saginaw.
16th November, 2023