For one weekend only, Laramie County Community College’s theater program put on a staged reading performance of “Letters From The Front” by Nick Wood.
Wood, an LCCC employee and Navy veteran, conducted interviews with other combat veterans. When writing the play, Wood said he kept the interviewee’s identities confidential, to help them open up about their stories. Each story was told in a first-person perspective from a different actor, almost verbatim to the interviewee.
Jason Pasqua, LCCC’s theater instructor, played the part of a bartender, who speaks directly to the audience, introducing each of the characters to the stage.
The bartender tells a story of Ron Peterson, a combat veteran, and later, a high school teacher in Shakopee, Minnesota, of over 40 years. He also worked as a football and wrestling coach for the high school.
“I don’t talk too much about my service, but I hope I’ve instilled my views of how great this country is, and even to this day, I have a flag in my yard,” Ron said.
The bartender tells us that during Ron’s time as a high school teacher, many students would learn about his past and inquire him about it, and that he’d always be transparent.
We learn that Ron died two years ago, but that he left a tremendous impression on Shakopee. Hundreds of his former students and friends attended his funeral.
We follow the stories of five other veterans, all of whom we learn were either Ron’s former students, or part of the football or wrestling teams he coached. The characters are introduced in order as John, Kyle, Brett, Colt and Tom.
Each character tells their story in a staggered arrangement. One would start their story, leave the set and let the others tell parts of their stories, and then the character would return to continue, and so on.
Fast-forward toward the end of the reading, where after roughly an hour of connecting with the servicemen and learning their backstories, each story ends with the teller recalling how they met their demise. The audience learns that each of the servicemen recalling their stories are deceased, and they are speaking to us directly from the afterlife.
“It hit me when I saw my blood everywhere, and all I could really do is wait…” Kyle said. “They bandaged us up, got us on a Black Hawk helicopter and flew us to the Green Zone Hospital in Baghdad… I didn’t make it.”
“Next thing I know, I’m on a Black Hawk chopper with medical guys telling me I’m going to be all right,” Brett said. “Ten minutes later, I went into a coma that I never woke up from.”
After the final story ends, the bartender returns, speaking to the audience, telling us that there is an individual behind each one of the statistics thrown at us.
“So when you see pictures of the planes coming back filled with caskets draped with the American flag, you can understand that there are stories that a person had, an identity, and a family,” the bartender said.
The idea that all of these stories are actually being told directly from the deceased was a twist I never expected from a staged reading like this. As if that’s not enough, after the bartender has referred to Ron in the third-person for the entirety of the reading, Colt directly speaks to the bartender, saying, “Thanks, Ron, for listening and helping us out. You were such an inspiration to all of us, and we’re grateful for that.”
In the end, “Letters From The Front” was performed as a staged reading to “test” both how it simply looks on stage, as well as to gauge the response of the audience. Judging by the standing ovation that occurred at the end of the performance I attended, it should seem clear that this early draft of a play was beautiful. The way the stories were compiled, the subtle interaction between characters, the emotion that comes with the twist, and the lessons to be learned about our service members; I think these are all wonderful reasons for this reading to be reintroduced as a fully-developed play, and perhaps evolve to something even greater.