We actually saw theater do some heavy lifting, for a change, last week. Since the show was inadequately publicized, you might have missed it–which would have been a pity, since it’s a rare enough sight, even in this area.

Carolina Arts Festival’s production of The Guys, Anne Nelson’s spare and undeniably moving tribute to the atrocities of last September, was vital enough to remind us all of the necessary work the theater can do in the world when it’s actually asked to.

The differences between it and the other shows last week were also enough to make one wonder why other theaters often elect not to do that work.

The premise of The Guys is deceptively simple. After the World Trade Center disaster, a young advertising writer named Joan finds herself asked to help Nick, a New York Fire Department captain, write a series of eulogies for men killed when the towers collapsed.

After civil authorities are unable to accept donations of blood, food or household goods, Joan marvels at first at the circumstances by which she can actually make a contribution. “When was the last time anyone in New York desperately needed a writer,” she muses before her first meeting with a taciturn Nick.

Played by artistic director Terrence Mann, Nick’s nearly a walking example of the fundamental inability of language, at least initially, to adequately respond to massive loss. Mann’s character is beyond achingly awkward, stiff with pain–and, we sense, ashamed because it is too much for him to bear.

We note in this modified staged reading that he never really touches Joan. It’s somehow more than just a gesture. It’s a protocol, one of nearly Camusian proportions. By now the captain knows that grief and loss are contagious, and far too easily communicable–in both senses of that word. In the captain’s world, one ethically takes pains–again, in the far too literal sense of that term–not to transmit such live, virulent and debilitating matter.

Joan’s private meditations on the biochemistry of pain interlace with the pair’s halting attempts to find the language in which to express the city’s losses. Slowly, they do just that. And we watch. Joan listens to Nick’s low-key, humble remembrances, and finds crucial threads within them by which to sum up a life.

A momentary look of surprise–if not outright relief–crosses Nick’s face as he hears the language do its necessary work. “Yeah,” he says. “You got it. That’s it. That’s him.”

Nelson’s script is far from flawless. The brief, imaginary tango–replete with the absolutely most chaste dip you’ll ever see–seems indulgent: comic relief that’s really neither comic nor relieving. Mann’s portrayal is a robust character study, one of considerable restraint and nuance. It was refreshing to see him work close up, in the confines of the BTI’s Fletcher Opera House.

As Joan, Charlotte d’Amboise was relatively affectless as Joan–a role perhaps too underplayed, or perhaps just underfunded in the script. At times she comes off more as Nick’s psychiatrist than his interlocutor, which is understandable enough. But her interior remarks to the audience and to herself come off at times too colorless. Somewhere, something’s still blank, here. Is the character numb? Is the actor? The director? Somehow, I doubt it.

Still, it’s unseemly to complain about such minor issues, when The Guys does so much more, so well. In a noble way, it begins to speak, with some eloquence, for what’s missing. First words, perhaps–but still, first words must come before others do. Their role is not to be minimized. They let us, and others, know we’re still alive.

The North Carolina Theatre’s current production of A Chorus Line is similarly useful. Michael Bennett’s 1975 musical takes the backstage lives of Broadway dancers and puts them in the spotlight.

In this production, the dancers’ desperation to repeatedly run a gauntlet of auditions is only heightened in the unflattering light of what they’re actually auditioning for. Zach, the casting director, and the community of dancers themselves make it clear. The acme in this world is nothing more than the most provisional of employment, approval and artistic fulfillment. Plus, of course, your body is turned into a screen, on which a lot of people out there in the dark are permitted to project their light and darkest fantasies. All for the price of a ticket.

Some, like Sheila (Pamela Jordan), have already learned the ropes: The audience is there to be seduced, and every question’s answer awaits the appropriate innuendo. Indeed, the trope of prostitution and other bargains made with sexuality are literally played out in certain sequences of this gritty little musical.

Everyone has their angle: the urbane, amusing Mark (Michael McGurk) who details his gratifyingly imaginative life of crime in “I Can Do That”; the calculatedly perky Val (well done here by Kendra Kassebaum) who conversationally details her life-enhancing trips to that other body shop in “Dance Ten Looks Three”; even Diana (Renee Bonadio), who keeps her Puerto Rican stage name by rationalizing, “Ethnic is in.”

But as the first and final selections for the chorus line of a hypothetical show are made, one thing becomes ironically obvious. Yes, the Marvin Hamlisch hit from the show extolls “one singular sensation.” But being that ideal is easily the quickest way to find oneself cut from a chorus line. In the real world of Broadway and touring auditions, work in the chorus goes to those who do not stand out in the crowd.

Competence is rewarded here. Excellence is the easiest way to get yourself fired. It’s a moral more often associated with the drudgery of bureaucracy than the glamorous world of show biz. Here, it’s a necessary bubble burst–for both audience and performers. Disenchantment has its uses. We forget that at our peril. EndBlock