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‘A Heartbeat to Baghdad' by famed playwright Glyn O'Malley debuts July 3

The first thing I did when I got home from Iraq? I got out of these … and into my civvies, got a cold Budweiser, and I mowed the lawn.

Id been in the desert so long that what I wanted more than anything was a lawn mower--not one of them go-cart jobbiesa real one. If I could smell fresh-cut grass, I knew I would be all right. And so the play opens.
“The first thing I did when I got home from Iraq? I got out of these … and into my civvies, got a cold Budweiser, and I mowed the lawn.

“I'd been in the desert so long that what I wanted more than anything was a lawn mower--not one of them go-cart jobbiesa real one. If I could smell fresh-cut grass, I knew I would be all right.” And so the play opens.

Written and directed this June by award-winning playwright, Glyn O'Malley, the play, “A Heartbeat to Baghdad,” is not for virgin ears. From beginning to end, it's about real lifeand real death. It's about the devastating impact of war on those most directly affected. And much of it is in the vernacular of soldiers on the front lines and in bars.

Playwright-in-residence at Austin Peay, O'Malley has spent the last month interviewing soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, and their family members. Although fictional, “A Heartbeat to Baghdad” is based on many first-person interviews.

O'Malley dedicates the play to “The Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, The 502th Mechanized Division and The 5th Group Special Forces, United States Army, Fort Campbell: To their loves, and to the memory of their fallen.”

O'Malley takes us both “in country” to the liberation of Iraq as well as into the war's other epicenterthe hearts and minds of the families left behind in the Clarksville-Hopkinsville, Ky., area when the 101st deployed to Iraq.

Called “an extraordinary event in American Theatre,” this is the first play written about the current war with Iraq and perhaps the first ever to be written while a war is ongoing.

O'Malley's play looks honestly at the inevitable tolls of war, as well as at the heroism, consciousness and self-sacrifice of some of the soldiers who went abroad to fight, and of the amazing bravery and sacrifices of those left behind.

It is a story, not only of the soldiers' battle with a known enemy, but it addresses, with an unflinching eye, the internal conflict of many soldiers and their families about the war itself and about the Iraqi people.

We meet J.D., the wife of a retired general, whose self-determined mission is to meet every plane of soldiers that hits the tarmac on return to Fort Campbell. Why? When her husband returned from Viet Nam, no one was there to welcome him, to thank him. She swore if there was anything she could do, no American soldier ever would return from war without someone to greet him or her.

She says, “There's always one or two of ‘em that want to cling; want to wrap their big ‘ol arms around me and have a hug. Most of ‘em haven't had that kind of woman huga ‘Mama hug,' I call itsince they were deployed.”

Then there's Shane, a soft-spoken, hard-hitting soldier, just back from Iraq and slated to return. “I tell my men you have to hate to do this job; you have to jump onto hate, grip it with both hands, and ride it all the way back home ‘cause it's the only way you're going to get back.”

Like voyeurs, we observe the love story of Charlotte and Dez unfold through their letters, which they prefer over e-mail, so someday their 2-year-old son Tyler will be able to read the letters and understand why his daddy had to leave. A Blackhawk helicopter pilot, Dez ends up in a little city with so little action, it is dubbed “Q-West.” There he becomes close friends with Salif, his Iraqi interpreter.

And we have Claire, the social worker, who encourages soldiers and their families to vent their feelings as therapy, while steeling her own heart against the horrors and pain she hears, until she is pressed by one of her “patients” to say what has affected her most about the war.

Finally, it spills out: “I remember the parade through downtown Clarksville. I stood there with my little girls and watched as row upon row of men and women in Desert Combat uniforms just kept comingthousands and thousands … their pride like a carpet rolling out in front of the different ensigns of various regiments, and I could only wave the little flag … so long before … it … felt like an … empty gesture so insufficient to this bulk of feeling welling up in me like a child coming to term in two hours and about to burst my heart.”

These are just a few of the characters that fill up the stage during “A Heartbeat to Baghdad” and who will remain in your memory longer than you may want. Through them, we cry, we laugh, we curse, we live, we die, we feel. We understand better.

Why did a famed NYC playwright feel compelled to pen this play? His past “war” plays were stepping stones, for sure. When his first “war” play, “Concertina's Rainbow,” opened Off-Broadway at New York Cherry Lane Theatre in July 2001 and he was asked why he chose to write about the Holocaust, since he had not lived through it and had no “relation” to it, his best answer was “Because, I did.”

Then came 9/11, which he watched, paralyzed, on his corner of NYC, just 20 blocks from the World Trade Center. He describes the horror: “‘War' with this enemy had moment by excruciating moment become very personal.”

In 2002, O'Malley was commissioned by Cincinnati's Playhouse-in-the-Park to write his second “war” play, inspired by two different deaths: One, the third female Palestinian homicide bomber and the second, her innocent Israeli victim. Called “Paradise,” the play won The Lazarus New Play Prize, but the controversy it sparked within The Council of American and Islamic Relations stopped it temporarily. However, it opens in New York this October and, later, in Miami.

O'Malley says, “Throughout the storms of controversy surrounding ‘Paradise,' … (when) I have been asked, ‘Why did you write this play?' I would … answer, ‘Because I can.' I … enjoy the freedom of a country which not only protects my right to, but sometimes places value on unflinching examining of tough questions in the arena of theatre.'”

When asked by Dr. Sara Gotcher, professor of theatre, to come to APSU to write a play about the war in Iraq and the 101st, O'Malley says he was “quietly accepting of what I have come to recognize as a sense of inevitability.”

He was eager to “get down here and find out for myself what the liberation of a people from tyranny halfway across the world felt like to those who had done it.”

The reality he discovered among the soldiers and the families surpassed his expectations. He says, “By way of my profession, I've been privileged to meet all sorts of extraordinary people all around the world, but I have to say that few hold a candle to the men and women, the spouses, the families of the 101st who so generously talked to me about what their lives have been like since we took the war to the enemy.”

He goes on to explain that his play, “A Heartbeat to Baghdad,” attempts “to present an array of some of the honest contradictions that occur in extraordinary Americans in Iraq advancing our core beliefs in the ancient cradle of our shared civilizationsand where they often collide.”

O'Malley summarizes what he gained during this experience: “What I have learned … is that every individual who participates shapes the courses of human events, and the great good of our land is that we all can, if we choose to.

“I salute the soldiers of the 101st, the 502nd, Special Ops Aviation Regiment and the 5th Group Special Forces at Fort Campbell who have liberated a country and despite everything our determined enemy has thrown at themoften taken the rifle out of their hand and … extended it.”

The first-time-ever reading of the play will be held at 7 p.m., Saturday, July 3 in APSU's Trahern Theatre.

All proceeds from the reading, at O'Malley's request, are to become a seed fund at APSU for The Sgt. Ariel Rico Memorial Scholarship for the children of fallen soldiers of the 101st.

Additionally, O'Malley says, “Should my play have further life, I will designate in perpetuity a percentage of my royalty to the scholarship and ask you to join me in this effort. While named for one particular fallen gladiator, I wish it to honor all our men and women who have voluntarily put themselves in harm's way so that you and I will never again have to smell rubble burning in the cities in our land.”

For more information regarding “A Heartbeat to Baghdad,” contact O'Malley at THE101STProject@aol.com or Dr. Sara Gotcher at 6259. For more information about the memorial scholarship, telephone Sharon Silva, University Advancement, at 7199.
—Dennie Burke