BWW Feature: THE MIGHTY PEN PROJECT'S M*A*S*H STAGED READINGS at the RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS: An Annual Theatrical Fundraiser For Veterans and Military Families

BWW Feature: THE MIGHTY PEN PROJECT'S M*A*S*H STAGED READINGS at the RICHMOND TRIANGLE PLAYERS: An Annual Theatrical Fundraiser For Veterans and Military Families
Photography Courtesy of Thomas E. Nowlin

"Attention! Attention!"

As part of their ongoing and estimable outreach to armed services personnel and military families across Virginia, the Mighty Pen Project, a semester-long writing intensive course taught to veterans for the expressed purpose of refining the overall delivery of their storied experiences, has been mounting a fundraiser in the form of a "staged reading" of three classic "M*A*S*H" episodes with an all-star cast of Richmond greats!

With the final performances being held at the Richmond Triangle Players on August 27th and 28th at 8:00 PM, this fundraiser, on into its second year with the projected goal of becoming an annual event of communal notability, is organized and facilitated by Mighty Pen Project's founder and chief instructor: Richmond's own best-selling author and playwright David L. Robbins.

Mr. Robbins himself makes for a welcomed cameo as General Clayton for the staged reading of "Divided We Stand," the first episode of the second season of "M*A*S*H," having originally aired on September 15th, 1973 on CBS.

"There are eleven seasons of 'M*A*S*H,' and we're hoping to get to all them," said Mr. Robbins with palpable enthusiasm.

For those who may be unfamiliar with "M*A*S*H," it is an acronym for "Mobile Army Surgical Hospital," an Army unit that was deactivated in 2006 to be succeeded by the CSH, or the "Concept Support Hospital." "M*A*S*H," the entertainment property, is the televised adaptation of Robert Altman's classic 1970 film M*A*S*H. The film, chronicling the day to day environment of the 4077th mobile hospital unit stationed mere miles away from a Korean War battlefront, was an instant success! It garnered recognition at the box office, the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (later to be renamed the Palme D'Or) at the 1970 Cannes Film Festival, and five Academy Award nominations including "Best Picture," and winning for "Best Adapted Screenplay" for Ring Lardner Jr.'s adaptation of Richard Hooker's MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors.

(Trivia: I once had the formative opportunity of meeting Sally Kellerman where we briefly discussed her Academy Award-nominated performance as "Hot Lips" Margaret Houlihan in M*A*S*H, as well as some of her other credits that included the original "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone.")

Larry Gelbart, famed author of the musicals City of Angels and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, would go onto adapt the film for television where, from 1972 to 1983, "M*A*S*H" established itself year after year as one of the most popular shows in the United States. In fact, the final episode "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" was the most watched television program in American history, only to be surpassed by Super Bowl XLIV in 2010.

Getting back to the "'M*A*S*H' - Staged Reading," Richmond audiences are treated to comical reenactments of three distinct episodes from the show's second season. As previously mentioned, "Divided We Stand" is directed by Virginia Repertory Theatre's Artistic Director Nathaniel Shaw while Episode 2.11, "Carry On, Hawkeye," is directed by Michael Duni (who recently directed David L. Robbins' latest play, The King of Crimes, for the 5th Wall Theatre), and Mr. Robbins' personal favorite, Episode 2.24, "A Smattering of Intelligence," is directed by Joel Bassin, the Producing Artistic Director at the Firehouse Theatre, respectively.

In alphabetical order, the cast is assumed by Richmond mainstays Wendy Carter, Harry Kolatz, Dean Knight, Dean McKnight, John Mincks, Thomas E. Nowlin, Alexander Sapp, Jasmine Shea, Emily Turner, and Robbie Winston, respectively. Nata Moriconi serves as the stage manager for the exhibition.

Apart from their collective wit, timing, and stage presence, these actors have also assembled a rather impressive costume plot, all the way down to the proper military lapel pins, Corporal Klinger's feathery feminine accoutrement, to even Henry Blake's fishing cap and his iconic University of Illinois Fighting Illini sweater.

With all of these elements put into place, this should make for very nostalgic evening to those who have yet to see these works in action.

However, in terms of the solemn meaning and encompassing purpose of this fundraiser, I feel that Ms. Carter ("Hot Lips" Houlihan) put it most succinctly:

"It's all about the vets."

And the "M*A*S*H - Staged Reading" is all about the Mighty Pen Project, with ticket proceeds and raffle sales going to the program itself.

The Mighty Pen Project, sponsored and coordinated with the Virginia War Memorial, has been giving vets and their families a voice of important - even potentially historic - erudition since their insipience in 2014. Veterans have the opportunity to take this course at no cost to their person.

This class, implemented over a twelve-week session in the winter, spring and autumn months, has proven to be fruitful for articulate composition among its curious partakers. Additionally, these sessions have been viewed as being genuinely eye-opening and even therapeutic for many of its members.

Clay Mountcastle, Director of the Virginia War Memorial, having taken the Mighty Pen Project's collegiate-level class himself, shared a story of such appreciation for bringing about these moments of emotional clarity.

"There's one gentleman who's taken the class; his son was killed in Iraq," said Mr. Mountcastle. "In trying to put his thoughts into words, it's helped him deal with a lot of his current feelings. And though he couldn't bring himself to read his writing out loud, others generously acted on his behalf and read his work to the rest of the class."

Veterans themselves have expressed similar sentiments of gratitude.

When I went to view the "'M*A*S*H' - Staged Reading" at R.T.P. on Monday the 20th, I was given the captivating opportunity to briefly chat with two veterans: Chris Knaggs, retired Navy and submarine fleet commander, and David Aldridge, retired Army Infantry and PFC Platoon Spec-Leader from the Vietnam era.

"I'll be going into my sixth class come September," said Mr. Aldridge in a private conversation with myself. "I know how much this means to the veterans, and I know how much the community benefits from [David L. Robbins'] expertise."

Before the start of the show, David L. Robbins introduced Mr. Aldridge and Mr. Knaggs up to the spotlight (every night before these readings, one or two different veterans are presented to say a few words). While Mr. Knaggs regaled the audience with an humorous anecdote of a time when his wife insisted that he, after a long and presumably unwashed tour of duty aboard his submarine, not set one foot into his family domicile on the base at Pearl Harbor without burning his clothes and bathing himself in the base's exterior shower instillations, Mr. Aldridge appeared before the audience to continue to voice his gratitude to the program, and to Mr. Robbins himself.

"This guy has a very unique way of teaching..." remarked Mr. Aldridge. "He teaches from the heart." Mr. Aldridge would add: "Dave has been one of the greatest supporters of veterans in Virginia."

While the show itself made for a quaintly lighthearted evening, the vocal testimonies from the veterans have been soulful and passionate.

"There are nights when the veterans speak, and several members of the cast are just in tears," noted Ms. Carter.

With the combined elements three amusing scripts, game actors and the heartfelt testimonials of actual decorated personnel, the overall nostalgia that the evening engendered reminiscent feelings in me. I can think of many nights watching reruns of "M*A*S*H" with my parents in the late 1980s and all through the 1990s. It's only as I've gotten older how I've come to better understand and appreciate the humor and often dire themes of "M*A*S*H," which is available for streaming just about anywhere in addition to continuously airing on regular cable channels elsewhere.

Ms. Carter shared a similar notion as to the bonding aspect that "M*A*S*H" can yield. Ms. Carter's father, also a veteran, would watch "M*A*S*H" with her as she was growing up.

"Dad was very smart and very savvy, so he was able to find his sense of humor through the darkest of times," said Ms. Carter introspectively. "I think 'M*A*S*H' taps into that: the comedy that they share among their posse; they really do care about each other."

To me, these specific moments of earnest devotion can elicit feelings of gratitude that veterans, whether directly or indirectly, can evoke across generations of American posterity. Indeed, the concept of gratitude itself can be precipitously infectious, in the most positive sense, by branching out into society in small but distinctly beholden formations of attitude.

Case in point: Ms. Carter, whom I'd never spoken to or met with up until about a month ago, reached out to me in the hopes that I might be available to take part in this sterling endeavor. However, due to my work and preexisting rehearsal responsibilities, I just couldn't make it work. Still, I was flattered and grateful for being offered the opportunity. And seeing as how this "staged reading" would abundantly meet the criteria for fulfilling a deeply humanitarian and community-driven need as a theatrical discipline in and of itself, I decided to meet Ms. Carter and this particular 4077 halfway by giving them their due recognition on this particular platform.

Again: it's all about gratitude, an impression that should never be suppressed in respect to the countless sacrifices that veterans and active service men and women make every day of any given year. Thence the ability for these upstanding, uniformed citizens to elucidate these histories to the point where they can accrue a greater understanding and acceptance of said involvements is an indescribable asset that needs attention, documentation and cherishment.

For further reading on the Mighty Pen Project and the Virginia War Memorial, please visit this website: (http://vawarmemorial.org/programs-services/mighty-pen-project )

I will close with the following.

An individual's passing through the trying bouts of war and militaristic vocations can make for some of the most riveting forms of literary intrigue, with famous American authors such as Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Herbert, Joseph Heller or Isaac Asimov (among many) drawing inevitable inspiration from their service contracts. Even verbose comedians such as Mel Brooks, George Carlin, and Ron White got their start in the military.

With this in mind, in something of a concordant musing, I have a long history of family serving in the military - two of whom remain on active duty to this day. Yet, I'd like to concentrate on two familial factions: the first being my paternal grandfather and his four brothers, each of whom returned from World War II. My great-uncle William Deekens, for one, would go on to write sports for The News Leader, specifically for local Richmond baseball. On the opposite side of the gene pool, my great-uncle Warren Strother, younger brother to my maternal grandfather Francis Michael, was a journalist and professor at Virginia Tech before passing away in 2006. My grandfather, though never having really gained the literary prominence of Warren, was known for his ability to "turn a phrase," which exceeded his auditory abilities. A definitive example of this is contained within a tiny, 1945 "Marquette" diary that he wrote in nearly every day detailing his service aboard the U.S.S. New York (BB-34) during the Pacific Campaign in World War II. Here is the passage dated Tuesday, March 27th, 1945 just off the coast of Okinawa...

"We began our first big day with a 'bang' and were rousted out of bed at 3:45 by an AIR ATTACK. Air defense was sounded at 3:45 this morning and I had my first experience of a bomb exploding nearby. Hardly knew just how far they missed us but it was too close for comfort. The escorts were also bombed but no hits were scored. During the day I think our carriers and battleships were hit at different times but everyone seemed too busy to get to the straight dope.

"D-1, our third day wasn't quite as bad. The continuous sounds of shells whipped past us but fortunately our ship was not hit. GOD must have been with us. Several shells hit near and bounced over the ship - a little too close for comfort.

"Late that day small ships pulled up alongside of us and gave us the wounded. I'LL ALWAYS REMEMBER THAT PARTICULAR EPISODE OF MY LIFE. Men were brought aboard with arms and legs shot off - all of them suffering. The next day we had funeral services and buried three men.

"My feelings were at their lowest when it was announced that a torpedo was headed for our stern. Fortunately that missed us too. I'm sure GOD must be watching over us. Bombardment of the Island continued and we pulled out for the night cruising about 1700."

Now, for someone hand-writing this on a battleship in the middle of the deafening blast radius of an amphibious military campaign, I think most could agree that this is fairly well-written. Even more amazing is the fact that, being 22 at the time, my grandfather had left school in the 8th grade to work on his family farm in Hanover County just outside of Ashland. Writing was just his hobby; and he was arguably pretty good at it.

Remember how I commented on posterity? I think I might have a lot of people to be thankful for my own parlance. That and gratitude to the United States Armed Services for providing my ancestors with their starts in the real world, as well as with stories to be told.

Stories are simply history; and history should constantly be retold lest future generations reassume the faults of the past. Stories can prevent such atrocities. So can literature, humor and theatre in peace.

And peace is provided by the military.

To the countless service men and women who might read this: thank you, sincerely, from all of us.

The Virginia War Memorial and the Mighty Pen Project's "'M*A*S*H' - Staged Reading" plays at the Richmond Triangle Players through the 28th of August, 2018.

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From This Author Brent Deekens

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