A Veteran's Piercing True Story Leaps From Page To Stage
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
"The Long Walk," a memoir by Iraq veteran Brian Castner, recounts his time on a bomb disposal team and the difficult challenge of coming home. Castner discovered that he'd lost many memories of family life - perhaps from repeated exposure to big bomb blasts. He began to realize he'd never be the same.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
BRIAN CASTNER: (Reading) The first thing you should know about me is that I'm crazy. I haven't always been. Until that one day, the day I went crazy, I was fine. Or I thought I was. Not anymore.
WERTHEIMER: That's Castner speaking with NPR last summer. The book got good reviews and Castner is working on another book. But in the meantime, the story is getting a rather surprising rebirth as an opera. NPR's Quil Lawrence got a preview.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: New operas for new audiences is the motto of the American Lyric Theatre in New York City. "The Long Walk" certainly sounds new, stripped down with just piano, guitar and voice. The subject is new, too - the very modern tale of Brian Castner, made a stranger to himself by post-traumatic stress disorder.
DANIEL BELCHER: (as Brian) (Singing) There are two of me now... It's Daniel Belcher playing Brian Castner. (Singing) The crazy, the crazy, the crazy, then there's the other. There are two of me now... In the opera, he discusses how he literally was outside of himself watching himself - there are two of me now. (Singing) Watching the other, watching the crazy pack lunches, check homework.
LAWRENCE: Like the book, the opera shows Brian Castner trying to fit in back at home, packing lunches for his sons, checking their homework. What the opera adds is the voice of Jessie Castner, Brian's wife. She watches her husband's distress and it reminds her of a warning her grandmother gave her.
HEATHER JOHNSON: (as Jessie) (Singing) My grandfather died on the living room floor, 10 years after he came back from the war... It's Heather Johnson playing Jessie Castner. (Singing) World War II killed him at home... Basically, her, you know, grandmother said: Your husband's not going to come home, regardless if he comes home alive or dead. The war will kill him inside if he comes home alive.
LAWRENCE: That prophecy comes true to some extent. Jessie realizes that her husband is a different person. He's paranoid, unable to keep violent memories of war out of the quiet home where his wife and sons sleep.
BELCHER: (as Daniel) (Singing) As I sit at the top of the stairs... He sits guard on the stairs in the middle of the night with his gun, always checking to making sure that his gun is loaded, ready to fire at a moment's notice. (Singing) As I keep my sleeping boys safe.
JOHNSON: And in the end, when she realized that he's been sitting at the top of the stairs for six hours' time with a gun in front of their sons' rooms, that it has happened and she's lost her husband. And she says, she finally admits, you didn't come home.
BELCHER: (as Brian) (Singing) Please send me...
LAWRENCE: Brian Castner never expected the opera world to take an interest in his story.
CASTNER: There's this huge gulf between the average civilian community in the United States and veterans and the military. And so if this opera - doesn't have to reach the military - if it reaches people that might never have been associated with the military otherwise, I think that's even more important.
LAWRENCE: Castner and his wife Jessie recently got a preview of the work in progress, seeing their family portrayed on stage for the first time. Jessie Castner says the opera captured her struggle to find peace in her family after her husband's return from Iraq.
JESSIE CASTNER: You'll get this assumption: Oh, I bet you're so glad Brian's home safe and everything's fine. And it's sort of like: Why would you assume everything's fine? And then it got to, quickly, something it takes me years to explain to people who love us.
LAWRENCE: Brain Caster wrote "The Long Walk" partly out of despair, so his sons could know what he was going through if the family didn't stay together. Castner now says has his crazy is under control and his family has accepted the changed man who is their husband and father. The American Lyric Theatre is planning to present the full score of "The Long Walk" sometime in 2014.
JOHNSON: (as Jessie) (Singing) He won't come home, my grandmother said...
LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News, New York.
JOHNSON: (as Jessie) (Singing) The one is (unintelligible). I hope for your sake we...
WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.