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Annette Bening, Ed Asner join Chapman University performers in bringing letters from servicemen to life

Annette Bening, Ed Asner join Chapman University performers in bringing letters from servicemen to life
“If All The Sky Were Paper,” a play by Andrew Carroll directed by John Benitz, takes place at the Musco Center for the Arts on Nov. 10. (Photo courtesy of Musco Center for the Arts)

The title of Andrew Carroll’s play “If All the Sky Were Paper” comes from a letter by a 14-year-old Polish Jew during World War II, who wrote: “If all the sky were paper, and the seas of the world an inkwell, I could not describe my suffering to you.”

His letter had to be smuggled out to his parents.

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The work is based on Carroll’s two bestsellers, “War Letters” and “Behind the Lines,” both based, in turn, on real letters written by servicemen to their wives, girlfriends and families.

“And, in some cases, from families back home writing to the servicemen,” said John Benitz, who has directed every production of the play since its first staged reading in Los Angeles in 2009.

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It sold out, which is when they knew they had something. The latest production takes place Nov. 10 at the Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University in Orange.

Benitz first approached Carroll about doing a play based on his two bestsellers in 2007.

“Who goes traveling around the world collecting war letters for so many years, as Andy has?” Benitz asked. “Who and why? What did it cost him to do that? Why are these letters so personal to him? I had to find the answers. Many letters show a sense of humor in the most dire of circumstances. And here are these actors performing real people who lived and wrote these letters. It’s an awesome responsibility and I feel their presence in the theater every time I do this play.”

The play was developed at Chapman, where it had its world premiere at the Waltmar Theatre in 2010 and a revival in 2012.

“It’s always been a work-in-progress,” said Benitz. “It’s really quite different from when it premiered eight years ago … And now, to bring it back eight years later on the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, it has a nice symmetry to it.”

The 15-person cast of this one-act, 85-minute play is an eclectic mix of actors, including Annette Bening, Ed Asner, Kate Mansi, Gary Cole and Chapman faculty, students and alumni. Peter Boyer composed an original score, which will be performed live by seven instrumentalists.

Benitz and Carroll have had a surplus of letters to utilize: there are more than 100,000 letters from every American war in Chapman’s Center for American War Letters, of which Carroll is the founding director.

“Many letters show a sense of humor in the most dire of circumstances,” said Benitz. “And here are these actors performing as real people who lived and wrote these letters. It’s an awesome responsibility, and I feel their presence in the theater every time I do this play.”

Michael Rydzynski is a contributor to Times Community News.

IF YOU GO

What: “If All the Sky were Paper,” a play by Andrew Carroll based on real letters written by servicemen and their families during World War I

Who: Starring Annette Bening, Gary Cole and Ed Asner. Music by Peter Boyer. Directed by John Benitz.

When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 10.

Where: Musco Center for the Arts, Chapman University, 415 N. Glassell St., Orange.

Cost: Tickets start at $25

Information: (844) 626-8726, muscocenter.org

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