In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, the task of memorializing the many who perished fell in some cases to those grieving multiple losses.
Such was the case of “Nick Flanagan,” an FDNY captain tasked with speaking at services for the dead — eight and counting — from his unit. His fictionalized story is recalled in the play “The Guys,” being presented August 31 as a staged reading at the Shelter Island Public Library under the direction of Terry Brockbank.
In the play, Nick meets “Joan,” an award-winning reporter and professor of journalism who has heard of his plight through a relative and has offered to help him craft eulogies.
“I’ve got to get up and talk in church,” he tells her when they first meet. “I’ve been sitting down in front of a piece of paper all day and I haven’t been able to write one sentence.
“What can I tell the families,” he asks Joan. “What can I say?”
“The Guys” chronicles the journey of Nick and Joan as they work their way through the sorrowful task as even more losses are tallied in the weeks after the attacks.
“It’s incredibly moving,” Brockbank says of the play. “However, it is very heart-warming and has plenty of humor in it.”
Just as “Nick” is a fictionalized character (the actual fire captain is not identified), so is “Joan.” Her character is based on the experiences of journalist Anne Nelson.
Born in Oklahoma and raised in Nebraska, Nelson is a graduate of Yale University. An award-winning war correspondent, she’s written extensively on media, conflict and human rights. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Harper’s, the BBC, CBC, NPR and PBS.
Since 1995, Nelson has been a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she teaches international reporting. A consultant for leading U.S. foundations, she’s a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship for her work on media and Nazi Germany. She is author of numerous publications, but “The Guys” was her first play.
How the play came into being was the result of another serendipitous meeting, this one between Nelson and Jim Simpson, founder and artistic director of the Flea Theater Company. Located in Tribeca, not far from the World Trade Center, the small company had been flourishing. But when the area was closed to traffic after the attacks, attendance dropped by 90 percent.
Simpson, husband of actress Sigourney Weaver, attended a conference where Weaver and Nelson’s husband were both speaking. He listened to Nelson’s story about helping to write the eulogies and suggested she write a play.
“The Guys” premiered December 4, 2001 with Weaver in the role of Joan and Bill Murray as Nick. The Flea provided free seats for firefighters and students. The play won critical acclaim and over the next six months, other notable actors stepped up to take over the roles. Among them was Anthony LaPaglia who, along with Weaver, acted in the 2002 Focus Features film adaptation.
The August 31 staged reading at the Shelter Island Public Library is directed by Terry Brockbank. This is the fourth production that Brockbank has brought to the library.
Brockbank grew up in London and moved to New York 50 years ago to pursue acting, but ended up working instead in information technology, initially with Ross Perot. Now retired, he and his wife, the actress Kathy Dyas-Brockbank, split their time between New York City and Shelter Island.
Dyas-Brockbank, born into a theater family, made her stage debut at age five months in “Boy Meets Girl.” She will play “Joan” in the library reading. Likewise, her counterpart Tod Engle, who plays “Nick,” made his stage debut with his actor parents in a summer production of “The Music Man.” The two professional actors have extensive credits on stage and in film and television.
Come see the play on Friday, August 31 at 7 p.m. in the Library’s Lower Level Community Room. There is no charge, but donations are gratefully accepted.
Next up: Celebrate a Decade of Dialogues with special guest Robert Krulwich, Friday, September 7, 6 to 8 p.m. at the Ram’s Head Inn. Tickets, $95 per person, are available at the library’s Circulation Desk.