Based on Andrew Carroll’s New York Times bestsellers, “War Letters” and “Behind the Lines,” the play, “If All the Sky Were Paper,” has been performed on and off since being actualized for a live audience in 2010 by Chapman University Theatre Arts Chair and director, John Benitz. It was put to the stage again this past June 7th at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, CA, when some of the original cast members joined forces with renowned actors, including Annette Bening (“Bugsy”) and Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”). The production, of which a portion of the proceeds benefited the United States Veterans’ Artists Alliance, detailed an emotional spectrum of potent letters written by servicemen and their loved ones back home, dating as far back as the American Revolutionary War, and as recently as the conflict in Afghanistan.
The stage on June 7th was purposefully bare, nearly functioning as a clean slate whereby the audience members could use to fill their range of laughter, amusement, anger, and unrelenting sadness that would take hold of them throughout the play. In an era when so many shows are overproduced, it was refreshing to see a set that only had an overhead screen to punctuate the harrowing words with profound imagery. The actors often stood in unison, dressed in only their street clothes, letters in hand, inhabiting the space and souls of our heroes, as well as anyone else affected by war. For the enlisted, these historical letters were the only source of hope, only thing worth looking forward to, as they were usually written in the most challenging of circumstances – the rain, the trenches, and in the midst of suffering a ruthless savagery perpetrated by others.
The overarching role belonged to Garrett Schweighauser, who portrayed author Andrew Carroll. As the play’s linchpin performer, Schweighauser never once stumbled on his words, empowered by a combination of his eloquence and charisma. Often with his arms unassumingly stretched out in front of his body, he appealed with an engaging personableness, explaining the mission to uncover letters from over 40 countries, which was patently not without danger (e.g., a plane Carroll was to board next at Baghdad airport was hit by a missile), but nonetheless revealed Carroll’s most important finding – that the scope of these wartime letters were indistinguishable from nationality and the year they were written in. Such an insight is as wise as any can be for, even when we’re at odds with each other, we are, as human beings, cast by the very same mold and beholden to the same motivations and desires as everyone else.
For instance, during war, we might be particularly inclined to save our families from the gruesome reminders back home despite our lives being a lost cause, fated to be thrown aside as collateral-effected casualties. The poignant retelling by a soldier (played by Matt Gallenstein), who didn’t want his wife Linda to know about what he was going through, seemed low on the totem pole of shock factor, but was quite moving, notably for family men/women in the audience, like director John Benitz, who recalls it as the letter he identifies most with.
There is also the letter that comes much after the fact, several years removed from the horrors, when one has to reconcile the past with the present. This was exemplified by Dan Lauria, who touchingly read a letter by an American soldier who had made amends with the family of a Vietnamese man who he had killed during the Vietnam quagmire. This, along with many other anecdotes, substantiates the notion that, while the images of war may slightly fade, the feelings never really cease to torment most of its participants who were lucky enough to survive.
Certainly, there is the other side of the coin – those who wait with impatient idle, wondering what has happened to their husbands and children who have been shipped out to unfamiliar regions of the world. One letter read with a compelling stillness and sorrow by Annette Bening underscored what it was like for a mother to unceremoniously part with her loving son. And, what made it even more grief-inducing was how Bening recounted the mother’s will to try to move on despite thinking about her son every day.
On a perhaps lighter note, albeit no less relevant, was not only the sense of emotional deprivation for spouses who remained on the home front, but frustrations resulting from the lack of intimacy. Actress Melissa Ritz, for example, was highly diverting in how she described the sexual frustration of the wife she was representing, who asked her husband’s superiors to give him a leave of absence in order to fulfill her needs – a request that was denied. Going further with this in the more mirthful sense were conscripted husbands who weren’t so keen to reciprocate, in missive form, their wives’ hand-written efforts. To this point, Kristofer McNeeley was nothing short of hilarious as the exasperatedly simple-minded soldier who had an exceedingly terse and ergonomic way of communicating, typewriting the occasional monosyllabic word (“smart girl”) under his wife’s thoroughly thought-out sentences.
Unfortunately, the happier times during battle are few and far between, and the prevailing atrocities that were described across the decades could never be forgotten. Many civilians have unjustly perished, children have written about being starved, and entire cities have been decimated. One of them was Stalingrad during World War II, when 1.3 million Russians died at the hands of Nazi Germany. But, years later at the Stalingrad memorial site, the theme of forgiveness – as opposed to revenge — won out as Schweighauser’s Carroll revealed. The melancholic music that fills the air there belongs to not that of a Russian composer, but a German one – Robert Schumann. As a world of connected people, we are, lest we forget the lessons of history, above the inhumanity of war, and the cast of 17 in “If All the Sky Were Paper” poetically illustrated that.
For more information, please visit warletters.us