Credit: Stan Barouh

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Perhaps everyone who has gone through some sufficiently momentous happening has had the peculiar sensation of realizing that the moment unfolding in front of them will stick with them for the rest of their lives. For war photographer and journalist Paul Watson, that realization happened when he heard the voice of a dead American soldier framed in his camera lens.

Watson, reporting in Somalia in 1993, had tracked down a soldier who had been pulled from the wreckage of a downed Black Hawk. The man was dead by the time Watson found him, bloodied and beaten by celebrating civilians and stripped almost naked. He spoke to the photographer all the same: “If you do this, I will own you forever.”

Watson took the photo. That split-second decision, by Watson’s reckoning, had devastating and far-reaching consequences. The image ran in newspapers around the world. President Clinton called for an immediate reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Somalia, a decision that perhaps sealed the fates of hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda. Terrorist groups saw the impact that a single death could have if its photograph could be publicized so widely. It also irrevocably changed Watson’s own life: The image won him a Pulitzer, but from that moment on, he carried the memory of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland with him everywhere. Playwright Dan O’Brien happened to hear an interview in which Watson spoke about that experience and was moved to contact him. O’Brien eventually created The Body of an American, the award-winning play that is currently making its regional premiere at Theater J.

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The two-hander at the end of this long chain of dominoes plays out on a small stage with only some minimal projections and a few chairs for set pieces; Eric Hissom (who plays Watson) and Thomas Keegan (O’Brien) also play dozens of additional characters to populate the story of the playwright slowly and steadily falling into the photographer’s orbit.

The play (especially the first act, which is effectively a dramatization of a years-long email chain between the two men) is built from these sparse elements, but the result is a gripping and thrilling examination of Watson’s travels to some of the most dangerous corners of the world—and of the ghosts who chase him there.

Hissom does a commendable job of showing how deeply Watson is fractured under his easygoing demeanor, and despite his matter-of-fact tone when rattling off retellings of the horrors he’s witnessed. Watson’s friend Kevin Carter, another photojournalist, famously died of suicide after winning the Pulitzer for a photo of a vulture stalking a starving child; according to Watson, Carter left a note promising to haunt him the same way that he had been haunted.

It becomes clear that O’Brien, though confined to a cozier life teaching in the suburbs, faces some of the same demons as these men, a shared connection that draws him ever deeper and closer to Watson even as the latter evades requests for phone calls and drops off the email chain for weeks.

Perhaps the biggest dramatic question either character faces by the end is whether or not O’Brien will finish the play (it’s hardly a spoiler to say he does), a quest which Watson doesn’t particularly care about. But leading up to that anticlimax is a thrilling journey around the world. And perhaps the two never find that deep connection, or come to understand why they’re drawn to each other in the first place. But O’Brien’s deep and thoughtful examination of human nature and all the beautiful and disturbing things that lie beneath it achieves what must be his primary goal: Whether you want it to or not, this is one play that will stick with you for a very long time. 

1529 16th St. NW. $27–$67. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.