Theatre review: The power of words

Christine Probst as Joan is pensive in the Actors Rep production of Anne Nelson’s “The Guys” Actors Rep screenshot

Christine Probst as Joan is pensive in the Actors Rep production of Anne Nelson’s “The Guys” Actors Rep screenshot

Actors Rep’s production of Anne Nelson’s “The Guys” is a moving drama about coping with grief, honouring memory and trying to understand the world.

“This is all I know how to do. Words.” Frustrated and desperate to do more to help relieve the trauma of 9/11, writer Joan (Christine Probst) wishes she could wind back the film from that fateful day and bring all the victims back. That would be her deal with God. But she struggles with her own sense of helplessness and guilt, her realisation that she has nothing to bring to the table to seal the deal.

Nick (Peter Zazzali), the fire house captain who has drafted Joan to help him write eulogies for eight of his ladder crew, missing presumed dead in the rubble of the World Trade Center, admonishes Joan’s self-defeatism. “Words are your tools,” he says.

And what powerful tools they are. Joan is actually playwright Anne Nelson, who has crafted a finely-wrought drama out of the conversations she had with the real fire department captain who asked for her help. The words she uses are every bit as solid and dependable, as useful and innovative, as the metal work made by one of Nick’s guys, Barney--the subject of the last of the four eulogies that we get to hear him deliver.

A New York tragedy

As a young reporter, Joan had experience of violent conflict in south America. But this tragedy has hit hard. This has happened in the city she has called home since she arrived aged 17. She now has family. She is confronted by the photocopied posters appealing for information on the missing. “It’s about us!” she screams when she hears all sorts of analysis and criticism from around the world about the terror attacks. But she immediately questions herself. “Isn’t it?” Joan’s politicising of the tragedy and her eagerness to bear a burden, when Probst breaks the fourth wall, can occasionally be heavy-handed. But that is the only minor flaw in an otherwise entrancing and sensitive text.

Under the skilled and necessarily minimalist direction of Erik Abbott, the exchanges between Joan and Nick are where the play really captures the essence of what these characters, and tens of thousands like them throughout New York, must have been going through in the days, weeks, months after that September day. They meet in Joan’s sister’s apartment, the only set in the play in which a pair of empty IKEA bookshelves represent the twin towers.

At first Joan is eager and confident and Nick is overawed and bewildered. As they talk about the guys Joan finds the hard shell of her experience melts, and Probst superbly transforms to lamenting listener and angry citizen. Zazzali delivers a perfect performance, as good as anything witnessed recently on a Luxembourg stage. Nick feels unable to bring to life the men he has lost, but with Joan’s words he finds his voice and sketches for her, and the audience, characters who bestride the stage even in their absence. The guys were genuine men who lived, loved and laughed together, and the audience is left with searing memories of Bill, Jimmy, Patrick and Barney.

“The Guys” by Anne Nelson presented by Actors Rep is on at at 8 p.m. each evening from 31 May to 2 June and then again from 4 to 6 June. An additional matinée is scheduled for Saturday 2 June at 3 p.m.

The venue is Bamhaus, 18A /18D rue de la Cimenterie L-1337 Luxembourg-Dommeldange.

Tickets at