One Marine, one story.
It’s likely that Fallujah Good, Benjamin Mathes’ one–man play about the American presence in Iraq from 2003-2004, is the story of every soldier who lived to tell about it.
Poignant, sad and (at times) uncomfortably brutal, Fallujah Good was taken, word–for–word, from the correspondence and journals of the writer’s brother, Capt. Adam Mathes.
Adam’s letters home, Benjamin Mathes says, weren’t full of “your everyday kind of ‘Hey, I’m fine’ stuff. It was a lot of very heavy philosophical thinking, and lots of very descriptive stuff about what was going on, and how he felt about it. So I had to sift through a lot of things.”
Although his brother trained as a writer and actor before joining the Marines, Mathes continues, he never intended for his musings on life in camp outside the city of Fallujah to be organized and performed. The stories were “a manifestation of his own frustrations — he wrote it as if he was speaking to somebody.”
Still, Adam, who’s now attending seminary school in Atlanta, “is very much in tune with the actor’s process and what that’s all about, so he was very supportive of it.”
Fallujah Good is an intense theatrical experience. During its 45 minutes, Benjamin Mathes’ character speaks directly to the audience about life among the grunts, in a country where the locals hate your guts and don’t want you there at all (“America bad, Fallujah good” goes one streetcorner chant).
The heat is murderous and the living conditions are miserable. And sudden death lurks around every corner.
Mathes, 32, is a Georgia native who currently lives in Los Angeles. He has a BFA in Acting from Webster University, and Master’s from the University of California at Irvine, where he teaches several courses in theater.
He premiered Fallujah Good in 2008, and performs it most frequently for military audiences (that’s why this week’s local shows are being held at the Mighty 8th Air Force Museum).
“I’ve had mothers come up to me in tears afterwards,” Mathes says, “saying ‘Now I know what he won’t talk about.’ Wives say the same thing. I’ve had long gray–haired Vietnam veterans crying and saying ‘Thank you for that.’”
Savannah Community Theatre director Tom Coleman is producing Fallujah Good. Ten years ago, when Coleman was teaching theater and directing plays in Athens, Mathes — then a UGA student — auditioned for a role in the musical Sweeney Todd.
“I didn’t know his caliber,” Coleman remembers. “I put him in the chorus. His big deal in the show was to go upstairs to get a haircut and have his throat slit.
“I was watching the scene and I went ‘Wait a minute! This guy’s got a backstory, and he knows where he’s going and what he’s doing.’ He was really good. So I started watching him in the other scenes.”
Mathes soon became one of Coleman’s “go–to” actors, the sort of thespian “who has all his lines learned at the first rehearsal,” Coleman reports.
In fact, Coleman gave Mathes his first paid professional gig, in a touring production.
Mathes has since lived in New York City, where he had a recurring role on the soap opera As the World Turns and worked in several Off Broadway shows. He’s done lots of regional and touring theater, and in California he picks up the occasional film and TV job.
“He’s the kind of person that keeps in touch,” says Coleman. “And so he did.”
It was Mathes’ idea to bring Fallujah Good to the Savannah area. Both he and Coleman saw the logic in producing the show close to military bases.
Fallujah Good, rest assured, is not anti–Muslim or anti–U.S. government. Although everything takes a hit during the soldier’s onstage monologues.
“It’s certainly politically agnostic,” Mathes says. “It’s just about the human experience. At the beginning of the play, he’s a little ‘rah–rah,’ and towards the end of it he’s a little broken in.
“And it’s like ‘That’s probably how it goes.’
“The Marines that I know, that’s the journey they go through. And you’ve got to have some ‘rah–rah’ or you’ll probably get killed.”
Where: The Mighty Eighth Air Force Museum, 175 Bourne Ave., Pooler
When: At 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 7 and 8
Dinner: At 6:30 p.m.
With dinner (advance): $42.95 public, $37.95 military
Without dinner (advance) $15 public, $12 military
Without dinner (at the door) $18 public, $15 military
Reservations: (912) 247-4644
Dinner seating is limited, and reservations must be made by phone in advance