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With 27 years in the Navy, Cmdr. Steve LaRocque is pretty much the type of guy people expect to have been working at the Pentagon on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. But as he shows in a new play, LaRocque’s six years at the building gave him a more informed idea about its workforce. The two main characters in September 11th Was a Tuesday are not only civiliansthey’re women.
“I got the idea…in a conversation I overheard,” LaRocque says. A fellow officer was talking about how newscasters, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, assumed that the overwhelming majority of Pentagon victims were men. “She said that was crazy, that a lot of them were women,” says LaRocque. “I went and looked [at the statistics], and she was right.” Of the 125 Pentagon workers who died, 47 were women.
In the play’s version of that day, LaRocque’s characters are two of only three survivors from an office of 40Vivian, a resource analyst, walks away unharmed; her colleague Antoinette suffers burns over 20 percent of her body. Months later, when Vivian visits Antoinette at the hospital as she starts a new phase of physical therapy, they’re both going through survivor guilt; the crux of the play is Antoinette’s crisis over whether to retire. She’s been worn down by the workthe crazy hours and the egos of the top brassbut she feels obligated to a job she knows is important. It’s a conflict that LaRocque says a lot of his co-workers felt after the attacks.
“You were pulled in two different directionsbetween personal meaningfulness and safety in your life, and duty,” says the 52-year-old LaRocque, who, like many other Pentagon employees, showed up for work that Sept. 12. “This office is a pressure cooker….You see people at their worst.”
He also saw how close people could get through their work. “At the Pentagon, as opposed to other places I’ve been stationed in the military, there’s an unusual degree of social interaction,” LaRocque says. “Especially among the women.”
Through their talks, Vivian and Antoniette relive their experiences during the attacks. Antoinette is still trying to find the man who carried her out through the smoke and confusion.
LaRocque says he kept their experiences painstakingly faithful to actual events and let the women speak in insider languagein terms of the Pentagon’s layout and the unfolding of the rescueto the point where an outsider might get confused. “That’s just a decision I had to make,” says LaRocque, who makes an appearance himself as a flaky, outspoken therapist who served in Vietnam.
Though artistic responses to Sept. 11 often come with weighty themes or portentous drama, director Jack Sbarbori says LaRocque’s “unsentimental portrait of everyday people” makes the play appropriate for the Quotidian Theatre, a nonprofit group so named for its predilection for everyday rather than grandiose stories. (Productions of Chekhov and Horton Foote are typical fare.)
Quotidian, now in its fifth season, is just the kind of company LaRocque says he has in mind when he writes. The criticism he too often hears in rejection letters, and which he heard from another theater turning down this play, is that “not enough happens.” The play is just too simple, they say. “This one is simple,” counters LaRocque. “It’s a pretty quiet story. It’s about how you get from day to day.” Dave Jamieson
September 11th Was a Tuesday is performed at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and at 2 p.m. Sundays to Oct. 12 at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. For more information, call (301) 816-1023.