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"The Body of An American" Review- Stage Left Theatre Company's documentary drama rings true

By Debra Davy

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Stage Left Theatre Company is currently presenting the Midwest premiere of “The Body of an American”, by Dan O’Brien at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19, 2016. The play, directed by Associate Artistic Director Jason A. Fleece, and starring Stage Left Artistic Associate Don Bender and Ryan Hallahan, is a “documentary drama” which has the two actors playing more than 30 separate roles in approximately 90 minutes. Sometimes the actors switch roles; they portray a woman, a translator, a radio interviewer, a psychiatrist, and many others. They do so convincingly- and without confusion. The action ostensibly takes place around the globe, but really must be seen as the travels they share by correspondence while the one travels and the other remains at his University. The stage set consists of two chairs  on a patterned carpet in a sandbox/snow-filled box in shifting light, materially augmented by enormous photographic blow-ups  and maps in the background.

Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender in "The Body of An American"

This is a poignant piece and also a true story. In 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia, photojournalist Paul Watson, hearing that an American soldier, one Staff Sergeant William David Cleveland, possibly alive, was being dragged through the streets, hurried to the scene. The man was dead; still tied up by ropes; his body had been desecrated. Watson took photos. The following year, Watson won a Pulitzer Prize for the photographs. Watson was interviewed about what he saw and photographed. Dan O’Brien, then at Princeton working on a play about “historical ghosts”, heard O’Brien speak on the radio, and contacted him by E-mail.

Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender

Over time, the two became close by E-mailing, chatting on the phone, and eventually meeting. As a result of their discussions and his research, O’Brien wrote “The Body of an American”, which won the first Edward M. Kennedy prize for drama inspired by American history, amid other honors.

Ryan Hallahan and Don Bender in "The Body of An American"

The play tells the story of their friendship, as they support each other while one travels to dangerous places for his life's committed work and the other teaches and writes for his. They struggle to help each other, to understand the meaning of their friendship, to share their work. They confess their weaknesses, their ambiguities and their human frailties. This is a play about what it means for two people to “know” one another.  They are two very different human beings, doing very different work, but joined by the urge to understand the world in which they live and communicate it through the very different lenses of the camera and the written/acted word.

Don Bender and Ryan Hallahan

The acting is just splendid- there is not a missed step. In a production which is almost a dreamscape, these performers bring home each nuance and each personae. The play is solid and recommended.

Don Bender and Ryan Hallahan in "The Body of An American"; photo courtesy of Johnny Knight

For tickets to this and other fine productions by this company, go to www.stagelefttheatre.com

 Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of Ian Maclaren



Published on Jun 13, 2016

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