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Righting the eulogy 

Also, a Brahms smackdown

Thinking is almost impossible when the unthinkable is unfolding before our eyes. So we reverted to our visceral selves as we watched the Twin Towers incinerating -- whether we were enveloped in the cloud of ash, watching from a nearby window, or glued to our TVs. We recoiled in horror. We rushed in to help those in distress, pulling together as a nation. We stiffened with rage toward those who had attacked us.

At a distance of more than five years -- long after the powers of reflection have returned -- it is sobering to confront exactly how it was in The Guys. This compact docudrama by reporter-turned-playwright Anne Nelson chronicles the unforeseen collaboration between a New York Fire Department captain and the playwright, when the firefighter seeks to properly eulogize eight of his fallen comrades.

Once most of the dust has settled, pure emotion continues to overwhelm Nick as he grapples with his loss, his luck, his guilt and his task. The writer, whom Nelson names Joan, is on a different trajectory, seeing this unexpected assignment as a way to get closer to the martyred rescuers, to make her contribution.

Nick hurts when he recalls how little he knew one of the new "probes" (probationary firemen) he must eulogize, how narrowly he escaped death (his best buddy chose to work that fateful morning shift for no particular reason), how much he'll miss both that dear friend and the firehouse troublemaker, and how he routinely indoctrinated the guys by telling them they had the best job in the world.

If Nick buckles occasionally under the weight of haunting memories he cannot escape, Joan is singed when she succeeds in feeling close to the firefighters she never knew. That, of course, upsets Nick. He's a good guy.

What the two have in common is the conviction that what they're doing is hugely important. Yet both realize that it isn't enough. Both of them also have the sense that 9/11 has permanently changed their city, their lives and their spirit.

Seeing how keenly they sense these changes can be the most unsettling aspect of watching The Guys. At times, I noted how Nick and Joan's proximity to the event -- in time and space -- accounted for the intensity of their hurt, their sense of powerlessness, and their suffering. I found myself inwardly recoiling from those moments, grateful that years would numb the pain and bring them comfort.

Yet at other times, this same intensity struck me forcefully as no less justified now than it was then. So I keenly felt the impulse to chide myself and my country. For growing so comfortable, so complacent, and so forgetful over the past five years.

All is not sepulchral grimness in this Pi production, staged appropriately at The Palmer Building, a one-time training facility restored by Charlotte's firemen. One of Joan's goals, after all, is to remember the good times in the lives of those who perished, to humanize them.

That's what makes Gerald Keith Colbert's performance as Nick all the more remarkable. Not only must he immerse himself in the captain's shell-shocked mindset, within it, he must break out into spontaneous laughter recalling his comrades' quirks and escapades. Colbert makes all of these hairpin transitions look altogether natural, sheathed in a finely modulated workingman's New York accent.

More subtle are the challenges facing Pamela Nichols Galle as Joan. Wanting to do something for grief-stricken relatives and coworkers is admirable enough, but right around the corner is the urge to show off what you've done. That's why I wasn't pleased with Galle early on. She seemed to be performing her earliest narrative to the audience instead of just saying it, and Vito Abate, in his Charlotte directorial debut, hasn't sufficiently stressed the difference.

By the time Joan's frustrations reach full boil, however, Galle has long since been swept up in the emotion of her journey. Artifice disappears, replaced by raw reality. Then we're all remembering what this is about -- and feeling it deeply.

You might say there was a grand Brahms smackdown last week, as Johannes' symphonies figured prominently within the space of four nights. The visiting BBC National Opera of Wales served up the D Major on Monday at Belk Theater, and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra defended their turf with the E Minor. Not as heavily hyped as the Colts-Bears showdown, but just as important for rabid Brahmsians.

My judge's scorecard gave a decisive nod to the Welsh. The CSO's Bravo, Brahms! concert offered a larger sampling of the German's masterwork, but therein lay the problem. Let's face it, Brahms fanatics are relatively few in number. Vivian Hagner's performance of the Violin Concerto, while sufficiently competent to excite the newcomer to this most crowd-pleasing piece, lacked the fire and brilliance to reignite the passions of those who already know and love it.

There was no arresting musicality to most of Hagner's playing. The tone she coaxed from her Strad was shockingly anemic until she rose ethereally to the highest notes of her solos and cadenzas, the only passages she genuinely gave herself to. Christof Perick and the orchestra fully complemented her with their lack of inspiration -- except for the beautifully blended woodwinds in the central adagio.

CSO did stage a second-half comeback with Symphony #4. What seemed like idle tinkering from Perick before intermission -- placing the lower strings next to the first violins onstage instead of facing them -- instantly flowered with success in the opening allegro as the celli and basses harmonized with almost startling richness.

To be fair, the BBC also started off with a wobble in their concerto segment, brandishing way too much artillery for the delicacies of Mozart's "Elvira Madigan" concerto. Less would have been more, though pianist Llyr Williams gave a distinguished reading of the famed andante.

After intermission, as the huge ensemble better gauged the hall, the Welsh truly showed their mettle in Symphony #2. Lower strings had an enviable lightness and transparency, the brass had a Brahmsian burnish, and the French horns just totally outclassed ours. Swiss conductor Thierry Fischer beautifully judged and drove the tempi.

Eerie. In a week when two companies open shows in Charlotte with protagonists named Nick, the Children's Theatre hero at ImaginOn is actually called "Nick-Nick" before he begins to surmount the language barrier. The current version of Dennis Foon's New Kid, ingeniously offering us the perspective of a non-speaking immigrant who leaps into an American schoolyard jungle, strikes me as more moving and less preachy this time around.

Chaz Pofahl is brilliant as Nick-Nick, but then so are a fun-loving Greta Marie Zandstra and a pouting Robbie Fulton as his hard-to-win friends. Matt Cosper directs with impish intelligence and costume designer Sandra Gray makes it easier on everybody.

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