Originally created 07/06/97

`Letters From the Front' delivers tragedy of gulf war



Actress Della Cole called during a break from rehearsal for her show Letters From the Front, which is coming to Fort Gordon.

She has done the two-person show more than 100 times since its inception six years ago and doesn't really need to rehearse. The practice is more for Neal Matthews, who joins the show in the role of boyfriend and stand-up comic Johnny Chastain.

"This is my third leading man," Ms. Cole said. "Since he is new to the play, the director has scheduled a three-week rehearsal."

As a Letters From the Front veteran, Ms. Cole knows what she'll see as the show travels to military bases in the United States and Europe. She'll be crowded by soldiers who want to talk about what the show meant to them. She'll go backstage and read the comment cards.

"The comment cards we've gotten have been poetry," Ms. Cole said. "We stand backstage and cry, reading those comment cards."

Fort Gordon will present Letters From the Front for the public at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and for soldiers only at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. The performances are free.

The show is about a writer, Katharine Hartgrove, played by Ms. Cole, who is putting together a show on war correspondence. Her boyfriend, Johnny Chastain, who once had his own television show, is helping out. The play is set in Hartgrove's home in Connecticut during the time of the Persian Gulf War. It begins during the Desert Shield phase and ends with Desert Storm.

The couple bicker a lot in the style of traditional romantic comedy, but the heart of the play is their reaction to letters written by soldiers. The plot hinges on a few letters that reveal tragedy in Hartgrove's life. Except for the letters relating to Hartgrove, all the letters are real and were taken from archives, books and personal collections.

The play's tone slides between comedy and drama. In one scene, for example, Hartgrove puts on an old jitterbug record she finds, and the two actors dance onstage. As the record ends, the doorbell rings, and the reality of war intrudes.

"It is an emotional roller coaster," Ms. Cole said.

The play confronts the issues of death and dying during wartime, but it is not depressing, Ms. Cole said. You come away glad to be alive and an American, she said.

"You see something sad, you see something horrible, but you see the human spirit survive through that," she said. "That is a real uplifting, positive thing."

On stage

What: Letters From the Front

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday for the public. For soldiers only, 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Fort Gordon's Alexander Hall.

How much: Free.

Information: 793-8552.