Awash in relevance

Old Deerfield Productions’ take on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 story  ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ still has much to say about war ... and its wounded

Joe Bonham, a small-town Colorado man, awoke alone in a hospital bed. He called out for help for someone to listen. But no one heard him. And no one did for the next 22 years.

He had no arms, no legs, no ears, no eyes, and no mouth. All he had was his thoughts consuming his own mind.

Bonham was drafted to serve and fight for the Unites States in World War I. And it was there fighting for American liberty and freedom where he was caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell. For the rest of his life, he remained a prisoner in his own mind, never quite seeing the fruits of freedom he helped his country keep.

On Saturday, May 11, in the 400-seat Wesley Church at 98 N. Maple St., in Hadley, Old Deerfield Productions will tell the story of this horribly wounded soldier, a fictional character from Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun.”

The 35-minute play is based on a radio broadcast in March 1940, starring James Cagney, which was an adaptation of Trumbo’s novel. The play explores what happens to a mind isolated from the outside world except for a sense of touch, pain and vibration.

An American novelist and screenwriter, Trumbo was one of the “Hollywood 10,” the first members of the “Blacklist.” His novel was thought to be anti-war and “Un-American.” And he was investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947 as part of its investigation of Communist influences in movies, books and arts.

Though the novel was published in 1939 and the radio show was broadcast in 1940, its message still has relevance today, said Linda McInerney, artistic director of Old Deerfield Productions. The United States is fighting in Afghanistan and is involved in many major conflicts across the Middle East. And now medicine, along with weaponry, has progressed so much that soldiers come home with physical and mental wounds they would have died from years prior, she said.

“We’re not dealing well as a country to help our wounded heal and find them work and fulfillment,” McInerney said. “It’s as relevant now as it always has been. And it’s so upsetting to think we haven’t really made any progress.”

According to The Bob Woodruff Foundation — a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring injured service members, veterans and their families can succeed and thrive and receive treatment when they return home — more than 2.5 million American military service members have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since Sept. 11, 2001.

The foundation says of those service members who have been in combat, 90 percent are surviving their injuries. And one in 50 service members in the Middle East have suffered injuries while in combat and one in five suffer from depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or a traumatic brain injury.

What’s more, the waiting line for veterans to receive health benefits and care has just gotten longer over the years. According to Concerned Veterans for America, more than 903,000 disability and compensation cases are pending. Seventy percent of cases are backlogged for more than 125 days. This backlog that keeps veterans waiting for care has multiplied by 2,000 percent since 2009.

“That’s the powerful thing about this piece,” said McInerney. “The world is still in the same place. We’re still facing the horrors of war and when soldiers come home.”

Throughout the play, Bonham struggles to find some way to cut the hours ticking by and the days that go by. Steadfastly, he tries to communicate with the doctors and nurses around him. His hope is to be placed in a glass box and toured around the country to show people the real horrors of war. By banging his head on his pillow, he uses Morse code to communicate with the medical team. The doctor, however, denies his wish. It’s against regulations. He will live the rest of his life in his condition trapped in his own mind.

Kevin Maroney of Shelburne Falls, an Old Deerfield Productions board member, is directing the show and it is he who is the mastermind behind the project.

“Kevin brought the idea to the (Old Deerfield Productions Board). We thought it was great because it was such a powerful piece,” said McInerney.

Old Deerfield Productions spent four months prepping for the show. It recruited Nico Lawson, a professional actor living in New York and former Montague resident, to play Joe Bonham.

Emma Jimerson will star as Kareen, Bonham’s girlfriend from before the war. The play also features James Emer, AJ Maroney and Joan Holiday, local actors and actresses who will help audience members understand what goes on in Bonham’s mind.

Since the story is based on the thoughts within Bonham’s mind — and his lack of sensory feeling — the crew will use sound design so audience members can understand the imprisonment Bonham is feeling.

During the show, actors and actresses will be on stage with scripts in hand — fully engaged and creating the world of sound, McInerney explained.

“It’s based on a radio play,” McInerney said. “It’s all about the world you imagine through listening. It’s really powerful.”

Sound design is a common technique in theater, where a play director uses sound to create desired moods. It was Kevin Maroney who came up with the idea to use sound design.

In the play, sounds will be used to reflect certain thoughts and memories of Bonham as he lies on a hospital bed. For instance, as Bonham remembers leaving his girlfriend for war, train whistles blow, a conductor yells “all aboard, soldier” and a group chimes “For the Yanks are coming.”

As Bonham taps his head on his pillow to communicate through Morse code sounds, the sound of the Morse code would reverberate throughout the theater and pillow taps will be heard. Church bells, footsteps and singing voices will also be used to bring audience members into Bonham’s world.

The play, McInerney said, will hopefully lift the level of discourse in the community.

“It will bring us together in new ways and help us think about soldiers as human beings,” she added. “It’s my hope to open up some hearts.”

The theater producers won’t leave audience members feeling helpless, McInerney said.

“We’re here to have a conversation on what we can do to help soldiers who come home from war, what soldiers’ challenges are and what they need,” McInerney.

Panel discussion

She emphasized that the play is not meant to be dividing. Rather, it is intended to bring people together on the issue. To that end, Old Deerfield Productions invited nine local and national panelists to converse about how Americans can be of help to veterans when they come home, what their challenges are, and what the country can learn from their experience and stories.

“This is not an ‘us versus them’ event, not about hawks and doves, nor red against blue. This is a conversation about carrying out right action and healing,” McInerney said.

The second act of the production will be a conversation — a symposium on the effects of war upon soldiers and a reflection on how to help veterans when they return home from war and what the current issues may be.

Panelists include Bob Woodruff, a former “ABC World News Tonight” anchor who was wounded while reporting from Iraq and founder of The Bob Woodruff Foundation, a national nonprofit that helps ensure injured service members, veterans and their families return to a home front ready to support them; Lee Woodruff, best-selling author, speaker, CBS Morning Show Correspondent and wife of Bob; David Pakman, progressive radio and television program host; Buz Eisenberg, attorney for detainees at Guantanamo; Kathy Belanger of South Deerfield, whose son Greg was one of the first soldiers killed in Iraq; Lt. Col. Naval Flight Officer Hank Detering, USMC Vietnam veteran; Rev. Andrea Avazian, senior pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church and an activist in movements for social and political change, as well as McInerney.

Bob Woodruff will travel to Hadley to tell his own story of injury and recovery covering the Middle East.

Seven years ago, Woodruff had traveled to Israel to report on the 2006 Palestinian elections. He and his cameraman Doug Vogt, were embedded with the U.S. 4th Infantry Division. While filming, the two newsmen stuck their heads above a hatch and were hit with an improvised explosive device in Iraq. Hit with shrapnel, Woodruff had to undergo surgery to remove a portion of his skull to reduce brain-swelling.

After his recovery in 2006, Woodruff and his family founded ReMIND.org and the Bob Woodruff Foundation to provide resources and support to injured service members and their families. The nonprofit guides veterans through the 40,000 other nonprofits providing services to them and aims to reintegrate injured soldiers.

Alongside Woodruff will be his wife, Lee, who published a story of their lives after Woodruff’s injury in the book “In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing.” The book covers the start of Woodruff’s career and their family. It also touches the Iraq explosion and Woodruff’s long recovery.

Old Deerfield Productions offered free tickets to the Veterans Tickets Foundation and is offering free tickets to any who identify themselves as a veteran by contacting McInerney at lmciner@gmail.com. Tickets are $10, $12 and premium front-row seats are $20.

Staff reporter Kathleen McKiernan has worked at The Recorder since 2012. She covers Deerfield, Conway, Sunderland and Whately. She can be reached at kmckiernan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.

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