March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Michigan State University presents a strong double bill of dramas examining the aftermath of Sept. 11


Monday, Sept. 26 — Remember Sept. 11, 2001? Not the divisive rhetoric that tirelessly evoked the date for political evasion or justification, or the shameless merchandising that recently reached new lows (9/11 Merlot, anyone? Just $19.11), but where you were when you first heard the tragic news.
Although the official 10th anniversary of the attacks has passed, Michigan State University's concurrent productions “What Happened?” and “Return To The Upright Position” recall that day with the dignity rarely seen in televised retrospectives.
Unlike starkly numbing photographs and video, both plays respectfully recreate those memories viscerally through spoken word and strategically placed smoke and mirrors.
“What Happened: The September 11th Testimony Project,” by Amy S. Green, is a haunting virtual play-by-play of the day's events as they materialized. Audio clips of the morning's pre-attack news coverage evoke an eerie time capsule of headlines that were quickly forgotten. Actors initially hike across the Arena Theater stage mumbling their morning routines in regional accents that sound like works in progress. Suddenly: blackout, smoke, dim lights and lots of shouting.
The moment the staged attack starts, “What Happened” finds its groove. Instantly, actors become honest and empathetic characters, turning descriptive accounts taken from eyewitness interviews into a compelling drama.
Director Wes Haskell keeps the action moving, with actors running and crawling across the bare stage, creating the illusion that you are near the towers with them.
Voices from firefighters, police officers and World Trade Center employees paint a barrage of perspectives as the second tower is hit and the buildings finally collapse. Even if you had no connection to the events apart from watching them on television, the show's rapid-fire delivery of the unimaginable horror vicariously places the audience within the madness.
As the action wanes, so does the play's momentum. Slowly, the play turns from “What Happened” into “Why Did This Happen” in an apparent quest to find meaning in meaninglessness. Understandably, playwright Green feels a responsibility to share the interviewees’ fears and hopes in addition to their immediate memories, but its moralizing results in an uneven and sometimes uncomfortable resolution.
“Return To The Upright Position,” conceived and edited by Caridad Svich, picks up where “What Happened” leaves off, poetically chronicling the post-tramatic inner-drama of Sept. 11 survivors and witnesses.
If “What Happened” is the taped interview, “Return To The Upright Position” is the dream journal, weaving reality and smoky metaphors into a staged nightmare. “Return” asks the still-controversial questions, such as “Are the first-responders, firefighters and police really heroes if they were just doing their jobs?” and “Were the terrorists cowardly for what they did?”
The diversity of voices and perspectives offer more for all audiences to connect with, especially in the Midwest.
The overall theme of Sept. 11 as a catalyst for national soul searching is summed up by one character lamenting the new Federal Aviation Administration rule prohibiting flight over heavily attended sporting events.
“I don't know how to react to the fact that this country will never be the same,” she says, noting the sudden absence of the Goodyear Blimp. Indeed, uncertainty is a universal sentiment.
Director Lynn Lammers provides stunningly detailed direction to her newbie cast, who look and sound far more experienced than they probably are. Even speaking in stream-of-consciousness, the cast members create clearly defined characters that provide voices and faces to inconsolable pain.
Costumes by Stephanie Henderson feature deep stains (ashes? blood?) that provide a subtly symbolic touch. And Shannon Melick's scene design, featuring the New York subway map painted on the floor and fences wrapped around the posts, give a sense of place without clutter.
Both plays are a triumph for the entire MSU Department of Theatre. The casts and direction in both instances are superb, offering an opportunity for reflection and remembrance without feeling exploitative or partisan. 

‘Two 9/11 Plays’
Michigan State University Theatre
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28, and Thursday, Sept. 29; 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1
MSU Arena Theatre