Ready to roll: Actors depict heroes of United Airlines Flight 93

If you go What: "United: The Heroes of Flight 93" When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. today Where: Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre, 333 4th St. S., Fargo Info: Tickets $16 for adults, $12 for seniors and students and $6 for children, (701) 235-6778 FARGO - A ...

If you go

  • What: "United: The Heroes of Flight 93"
  • When: 2 and 7:30 p.m. today
  • Where: Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre, 333 4th St. S., Fargo
  • Info: Tickets $16 for adults, $12 for seniors and students and $6 for children, (701) 235-6778

FARGO - A not-so-funny thing happened to David Lassig when he won an award for his theatrical comedies a couple of years ago.
On the trip to accept the honor at Mountain Playhouse in Jennerstown, Pa., the Fargo-Moorhead-area playwright took a short detour to Stonycreek Township, Pa., 60 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, and the Flight 93 National Memorial.

Moved by the site and the story of passengers who fought back against the hijackers and kept them from reaching their target, Lassig began researching the events of that day, Sept. 11, 2001, and those involved.

"People probably know more about the twin towers or the Pentagon, but I don't think Flight 93 got that much attention," Lassig says, acknowledging the made-for-TV movie and the Academy Award-nominated film.

Today, on the 10th anniversary of that dark day, Lassig's dramatic play, "United: The Heroes of Flight 93," receives two performances at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre.


"It's a great story because these people were heroes by saving so many more lives by sacrificing their own," Lassig says.

United Airlines Flight 93 was the fourth hijacked flight on Sept. 11, 2001. Terrorists took control of the plane about 45 minutes into the flight from Newark, N.J., to San Francisco.

While the assailants turned the flight back to an unknown East Coast target, passengers planned a revolt after learning of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C.

The passengers mounted their counterattack, and 35 minutes after the ordeal began, it ended when the plane crashed into a Stonycreek Township field, killing all on board.

Everyday heroes

With Lassig's play tapping into the biggest news story of our lives, it makes for a different theater experience not only for the writer and the performer but also for the audience, who knows the grim ending before even buying a ticket.

"People do know what happened, so it gets to their emotions right away," Lassig explains. "One of the main things I hope people come away with from the show is that these passengers were just normal, everyday people like you and I. I want people to walk away from this and say, 'That could've been me on that plane, and I could be a normal, everyday hero just like that, too.' "

The play, staged as a dramatic reading, starts as the passengers board the plane, each introducing themselves though one of the seven actors reading from scripts.


Lassig created the dialogue based on transcripts of recorded conversations and stories about the deceased.

Throughout the play, outside voices, like those from control towers, and the terrorists are heard via recordings.

A timeline projected on a screen follows the in-flight events. At the end, a slide show of passengers scrolls as well as images from the crash site memorial.

A cathartic experience

While Lassig was inspired to write about the flight and the passengers, he found the subject more difficult to tackle than his comic romps, like "Who Maid Who?" and "Barely Heirs."

"It was harder to write than a farce. Because there's so much more emotion involved, you have to take more breaks," he says, noting that he could only write for a half-hour at a time, compared to the hours-long rolls he experiences writing comedies.

The emotional weight weighs on the actors as well.

"I still feel a connection to that day," says Jen Kapitan, a former New Yorker whose daily subway stop was the World Trade Center. "Because of the words we say in the script, it's not easy to get there."


While she says two productions today is doable, she would not be able do a sustained run of the show over time.

"It's not healthy to have this cathartic experience every night," director Jean Wilhelmi says.

"I wouldn't come if I wasn't in it. I wanted to be in it, but I wouldn't come," says Charles Newman, who says being asked to be a part in the production was an honor.

Among the passengers Newman plays is the flight's best known, Todd Beamer, known for his motivating final known words, "Let's roll." Newman did his own research about the organizer of the counterattack, but not all involved could get so invested.

"If I really knew everyone's story, it would be too hard ... I'm only bringing it to life," says Wilhelmi. "I almost have to approach them as characters because it's too real, too close."

She says she and the actors all cried after the first read-through, something they can't afford to do onstage.

"We have to honor these people by showing the composure these people had," she says.

"The energy I get is from bringing (the stories) to as many people as possible," says Judith Young, another actor in the play. "(The audience) wants to feel connected. Paying honor is a way of healing."


She knows from experience. Young was in a similar performance of the play in 2010.

"It was an amazing experience," she says, "one of the most spiritual things I've ever done."

And an experience like that would mean more to the performers than a standing ovation.

Young says applause claps were muffled after last year's performance because so many in the crowd were holding tissues.

"Even if we don't get applause, it wouldn't break my heart," Newman says. "It's a solemn occasion."

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533

For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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