While many Americans can recall exactly where they were when the Sept. 11 tragedy struck, they may not recall where they were or what they were doing Sept. 12.
Jobsite Theater’s upcoming production “The Guys,” however, takes place in the days immediately following the attacks.
Based on a true story, “The Guys” focuses on a Fire Department City of New York (FDNY) fire captain named Nick and his task of writing a eulogy for the eight men who he lost on Sept. 11. He wants to write about the men as human beings rather than the heroes the media portrays.
“In any given year, the entire FDNY loses about six people a year,” said director and USF alum Shawn Paonessa. “On Sept. 11, they lost 350 in one hour.”
Nick befriends an editor named Joan, who desperately wishes to help in any way.
“The writer struggles with her own crisis of what can she possibly do,” Paonessa said. “Everybody wanted to help in some way, but they just didn’t need them. They just needed hard labor to try and find people.”
Paonessa said “The Guys” tells the story of forming relationships in the midst of tragedy and realizing that patriotism should not have swept through the country only after a terrorist attack.
Although the topic and the setting of the story may not be as heart-wrenching as the tragedy itself, Paonessa said the production is also about “trying to find the beauty and the humor in life while trying to deal with the new normal.”
He also said that a large part of the story’s objective was to allow those lost firefighters to be remembered as more than simply one group of heroes, but individual people with individual personalities and characteristics.
“There’s a lot of humor in it because, as Nick starts telling stories, he thinks he has to portray these men as heroes – and they were,” Paonessa said. “But he knew who his men were, and they were these individual people.”
Paul Potenza, who plays Nick alongside his wife, Roz, as Joan, said the play is a good way of commemorating the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 because of their close connection to the actual event. Paul’s brother-in-law worked at Ground Zero for the FDNY.
“We were feeling very grateful for the fact that he was not harmed in it,” he said. “When I visited him in October 2001, I got to go to Ground Zero with him, and it was a life-changing experience. It was still very raw, and it was a war zone. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
Written by Anne Nelson in just nine days, “The Guys” debuted Dec. 4, 2001 off-Broadway at the Flea Theater and starred Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray. Roz had the opportunity to meet Nelson this summer. She said Nelson spoke of how accurately the play sticks to the true story.
“One of the most amazing statements she told me was how much of the play was real and how much was play for the sake of drama,” Roz said. “She said 95 percent is real.”
Paul went to New York City to see the play a month after its debut, and said he left with a purpose – to turn Jobsite’s production into something that would benefit various high schools and fire departments. Proceeds for tonight’s opening will go to the Jeff Norton Scholarship Fund, which benefits Tampa area students.
“I wanted to make sure that whenever we did it, there would always be purpose behind it,” he said.
Paul did limited runs with the show in 2003 and 2006. In working with Paonessa, he decided that the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 would serve as a good reminder of a sense of community that is still very necessary.
“There was a short period of time in the grieving process when humanity rose to the occasion … there was more consideration,” Paonessa said. “And we’ve kind of forgotten that period, and it’s important to remember.”
Paul said he hopes the audience walks away from the play with a sense of “the amazing amount of humanity and spirit when one person reaches out to another person, and being able to rebuild and recuperate.”
“The Guys” runs today through Sept. 25 at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts’ Shimberg Playhouse. Tickets start at $24.50.