Chicago Theater Review: THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN (Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit)

by Lawrence Bommer on May 19, 2016

in Theater-Chicago

Post image for Chicago Theater Review: THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN (Stage Left Theatre at Theater Wit)

A DOCUMENTARY DRAMA DELIVERS

Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender in THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN by Dan O’Brien. Photo by Ian McLaren.Chicago is currently witnessing two productions about photojournalists haunted by their work. TimeLine Theatre’s Chimerica offers a flawed but fascinating 180-minute look at a fateful historical “shot”: the “tank man” from Beijing’s 1989 demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. Delivering a more potent work in much less time, Stage Left Theatre’s 95-minute The Body of an American examines the aftermath of another famous picture—a dead American soldier dragged by a Somali mob through the streets of Mogadishu in 1993.

In Jason A. Fleece’s fittingly fluid staging, two actors—veteran Chicago artist Don Bender and rising talent Ryan Hallahan—play more than 30 roles as they depict an engrossing collaboration that began in 2007. The meeting of minds comes between Canadian cameraman Paul Watson (author of the memoir Where War Lives) and playwright Dan O’Brien. The first is a tormented photographer dogged by harsh images that trigger memories impossible to exorcise, the second a frustrated writer dealing with ghosts he can’t integrate into a satisfying script. Five years later, the partnership yielded this prize-winning puzzle play that details the differences that define, and the urges that connect, two very different seekers.

Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender in THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN by Dan O’Brien - Photo by Ian McLaren

Illustrated by Anthony Churchill’s vivid videos, the action ranges from Kabul, Afghanistan to Yellowstone in Canada’s Northwest Territories (“sand and snow, sand and snow”). The men’s dovetailing narratives testify to a whole that’s greater than the sum of these persons, a kind of confessional call and emotional response. Alienated by choice and fate from their families, O’Brien and Watson are independent operators whose evasions and commitments create kindred souls. They meet in the dogsled-driven Canadian Arctic. It’s a common ground vividly shown in all its Spartan neutrality, where “What’s your name” is quickly followed by “When are you leaving?”

Don Bender and Ryan Hallahan in THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN by Dan O’Brien. Photo by Ian McLaren.Oddly, boredom, bad television and too little booze cement their connection. Watson slowly opens up to this younger dramatist: They end up defining themselves both by sheer contrast and shared obsessions. The women in their lives, it seems, never get to know their secrets. This play reveals male bonding of the least discredited sort, a pooling of pain that leads to light. Misfits whose self-esteem requires running risks, one captures reality through lenses, the other through words–but the “take away” is eerily similar.

O’Brien is haunted by the memory of a brother who tried to commit suicide. Staggering through the “fog of war” from assignments that aren’t quite worth dying for, Watson is convinced that all human conflict begins within us, then seizes onto whatever war falls to hand. In any case Watson must deal with the suicide of Kevin Carter, a fellow Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, as well as the murder of Abdul Haq, the Afghan commander he interviewed in 2001 who was later murdered by the Taliban.

Don Bender and Ryan Hallahan in THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN by Dan O’Brien - Photo by Ian McLaren.Most of all, Watson is pursued by his PTSD-like guilt over recording the horrible desecration of the corpse of Sgt. William David Cleveland. He can’t shake the moment when he imagines a dying Cleveland warning him before Watson took the shot, “If you do this, I will own you.” Indeed. After Somalia, Watson went on to record Tutsi atrocities in Rwanda and massacres in the Middle East, but he remains conflicted about whether his pictures made a difference or, worse, could actually desensitize us to other people’s sufferings. And he can’t stop seeing an American soldier die over and over.

Only in a final, surprisingly affecting, encounter between Watson and Sgt. Cleveland’s very understanding soldier-brother does the driven lensman achieve something like completion, if not closure. In this validation, the one-act’s most memorable moment, two superb actors never hit a wrong note.

A seamless marriage of dialogue and imagery, this “deconstructed one-man show for two actors,” as O’Brien describes The Body of an American, presents a powerful artistic synthesis of free-associating confessions and painfully pictorial anecdotes. Plays that take us where we never want to go, then make us glad we did, must be doing something right. This is all that.

Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender in THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN by Dan O’Brien - Photo by Ian McLaren.

photos by Ian McLaren

The Body of an American
Stage Left Theatre
Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on June 19, 2016
for tickets, call 773.975.8150 or visit Theater Wit

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

Leave a Comment