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Legacy of Pen, Sword

The difficulty of distilling 60,000 missives into drama has meant 'War Letters' is a work in progress.

February 17, 2002|IRENE LACHER

In a sense, a play such as "War Letters" is the essence of theater for an actor. If theater means convincing an audience that you're someone you're not and never could have been, then "War Letters" may present the ultimate challenge.

The nascent play, opening today at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, is conceived, directed and performed by a group of people who've never set foot on a battlefield. Yet they're so intense about the production that they've been approaching it almost as though it were a mission, particularly since Sept. 11.

"I want this project to make war real, to make it human, to bring it to life, so that for other people it's not abstract," Andrew Carroll says. Carroll, 32, is sitting in a small conference room next door to the theater, talking about the "project"--the Legacy Project, his campaign to save and disseminate America's war letters, an often-poignant cache of memories about what it was like to live through wartime, from the Civil War to the present day.

The Legacy Project began with a simple letter to Dear Abby and has unearthed 60,000 more. He solicited the letters in a Nov. 11, 1998, Abby column, triggering a chain of multimedia dominoes, including an acclaimed PBS documentary that aired last December.

"When you've lost something that was very valuable and you hear people were intentionally discarding it, that's very troubling," he says. "So I got this idea to start this organization called the Legacy Project, which was only meant to encourage people to save their letters."

The first outgrowth of the Legacy Project surfaced last May, when Scribner published "War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence From American Wars." The book, which later made the New York Times bestseller list, contained 200 letters edited by Carroll about combat, God, love and death from the Civil War through the Gulf War. Since then, Carroll has been helping director Philip Himberg, artistic director of the Sundance Theatre Program, and playwright Paul Selig with the difficult task of molding a coherent, compelling play from the dense clay of a 472-page book.

Himberg's other collaborators include the actors themselves--two celebrities who will be replaced every few weeks, starting with Treat Williams and Mario Van Peebles, and three permanent cast members: Tony Abatemarco, Nichole Pelerine and Sybyl Walker.

Himberg, Williams and Van Peebles all remember the Vietnam War but never served. For most of Carroll's life, America has been at peace. Yet all of them say the letters have connected them to the experience of war in a way they'd never imagined.

"No matter how much your family tells you about someone, no matter how much they talk about your grandfather or uncle, when someone puts pen to paper and expresses themselves, that person's personality just comes through in a way it hadn't before," says Williams, whose uncle died in World War II at age 19. "It's probably the greatest legacy anyone can leave."

How did a group of people, several of whom opposed the Vietnam War, come to be immersed in a project bent on communicating the experience of war? How did their understanding of war make the leap from an abstract concept to something so heartfelt they were compelled to express it through art?

For Carroll, the journey began in 1990, when he was an English major at Columbia University. He remembers a life-changing call from his father, saying the family home in Washington, D.C., had gone up in flames. Carroll came home to an empty shell.

"I went up to where my closet had been, and the thing that struck me was that all the letters were gone," he says. "I thought it would be an inconvenience to re-create my whole library of books and CDs, but the letters couldn't be replaced. I had a friend who'd been in Tiananmen Square the June the massacre took place. He was writing these riveting letters about what it was like to be there. And then just letters from girlfriends, letters from buddies, letters from my parents that I'd kept and really took for granted until they were gone. And that's what got me interested in letters."

His first venture was compiling and editing "Letters of a Nation: A Collection of Extraordinary American Letters" (1997), which illuminated 350 years of American history through the missives of unknowns as well as the celebrated and the notorious. In researching the chapter on war, Carroll was particularly struck by the words of veterans.

"There were Navajo code-talkers," he says. "They used the Navajo language as our military code in the South Pacific because it's not mathematical and you couldn't figure it out. So I was talking to these veterans, and I said, 'I'd love to see your letters. We'd love to get some unpublished material in the book.' They said, 'We just threw them away.'"

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