“Say it like you mean it.” At bottom, that’s really the actor’s task–to voice with conviction the words of another human being–and it has everything to do with an audience’s acceptance of a production’s authenticity. Sometimes that conviction is easily attained. In our theater last week, it became nearly impossible.

Our actors–John Allore, Mark Filiaci, Hope Hynes and Jeri Lynn Schulke–were performing a play by William Mastrosimone called Cat’s-Paw. Written in 1985, it concerns two terrorists who have kidnapped an EPA official and set off a car bomb in order to bring attention to the condition of the nation’s water supply. We’d chosen to produce the play because of its topicality: The McVeigh execution and the proliferation of eco-terrorism had provoked a flurry of speculation and debate on extremism, martyrdom, and the media’s impact on the events they cover. The discovery of an apparent pipe bomb on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus indicated that the timeliness of our play had local implications as well.

Early in August we’d begun the process of embodying our four characters (the last is a television reporter), each of whom proves himself capable of ruthless behavior in the service of his beliefs. As rehearsals progressed, the actors developed logical and emotional frameworks to support the choices their characters made, and in performance they made forceful arguments for their respective causes. The opening weekend response, both popular and critical, was extremely positive.

And then everything changed.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, it seemed petty to consider the relatively minor concerns of a 75-seat theater operation. Nevertheless, we were forced to grapple with our particular version of the question the world was now facing–how do we proceed?

We all recognized the importance of returning to something approaching normalcy. We listened as community leaders and artists from around the country touted the healing potential of the arts, which could provide an escape, however briefly, from the terrible reality being run and rerun across their television sets. Our situation, though, was very different. We could offer no such escape. Audience members coming to our theater would be confronted with people and events disturbingly similar to those that had so suddenly and chillingly entered their lives.

I spoke with our executive board, the management at University Mall where we perform, family and friends in the community, and found responses to the theater’s dilemma as well as to the week’s events varied wildly. Even among our four cast members, the only shared conviction was that performing the play would now be extraordinarily difficult.

Ultimately, our belief that the theater should be a place where we gather to try to make sense of things convinced us to reopen. When to do so, however, was less clear. We felt it was important to recognize the nation’s suffering and so decided to cancel Thursday’s performance. But there was no formula for gauging when, or if, people would feel comfortable attending this play. We decided to return to performance Friday in the conviction that if people were willing to come, we should not turn them away.

We met on Thursday to prepare for Friday’s show. It was a somber rehearsal, full of concern and doubt. The actors spoke their lines quietly, without feeling, following their prescribed paths as if programmed to do so. Often, they were barely audible. So many of the lines had eerie new resonances, conjuring up images of disaster and panic beyond the theater’s walls. Editing out disconcerting lines would have left us precious little to perform.

For the actors, the lines echoed back as they were spoken, their horrific implications newly sharpened, and for each performer, the principal conflict was no longer between characters but within him- or herself. How can you defend the slaughter of innocents without feeling the same revulsion you felt an hour earlier as you watched the news?

We didn’t know what to expect when we opened the doors Friday night. But as people began to arrive and talk with us, it became clear that they wanted to be there. Some had made their reservations before Sept. 11. A few had come only to see a play, not really sure of the subject matter. But no one left, and at least half stayed afterward for an impromptu discussion. The events of the week were very much with us and were as much the topic of discussion as the play itself.

We played to 60 people that night, another 40 came Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon was full. With each performance the actors’ authority and confidence strengthened, but they talked candidly afterward of their individual struggles to remain within the context of the play from moment to moment. And in each of the discussions, someone took the opportunity to note the actors’ courage to engage in those struggles and to thank them for being willing to perform what had proved to be an invaluable service.

Working in the arts truly qualifies as a “faith-based” endeavor. We struggle through matinees full of restless children, or attempt to play over a room full of coughers, in the belief that somewhere in the middle of the audience is a receptive listener to whom the event–this concert, this reading, this performance–will make a difference. Last weekend provided that rare opportunity to see it happen, and in the midst of overwhelming uncertainty, to have our convictions reinforced. EndBlock