n early August 2005, Michael Tisdale got news that his father had died following a long illness. He drove through the night from New York City — where he’d been living for 13 years as an actor and playwright — to his mother’s house in Lakewood.
That same week, families and friends of 22 Marines were dealing with losses of their own. The soldiers, all with the 3rd Battalion 25th Marines based in Brook Park, were killed in Iraq. The deaths occurred during three incidents, separated by a matter of days.
Tisdale read the local papers filled with headlines about the fallen Marines, but it wasn’t until his father’s memorial service that he felt a connection. His father had served in the Navy 40-some years before, and his mother was presented with a flag at the service. “Everything I’d read about the Marines took on a heightened significance at that moment,” Tisdale says.
Even after returning to his life in New York, the Marines’ stories stayed on his mind. He kicked around the idea of writing a play about them, based on the dozens of articles he’d read following the events. But reading about them was one thing; meeting their families, hearing their stories and understanding how much was lost was something else entirely.
Tisdale realized what he had to do: Pick up a phone and cold-call the families. “I’m not a journalist,” he’d say. “And in the same week you lost your son, I lost my father.”
Some families turned down Tisdale’s request to interview them, while others were tentatively supportive.
“It was still shocking, what we were going through,” says Steven Harper, whose son Brad is one of four Marines Tisdale’s play,Goldstar, Ohio, focuses on. “We didn’t know [Tisdale] or what he wanted, but we thought,if it’s anything that will keep Brad’s name alive, we’d be open to doing it.”
Tisdale first met the Harpers at their Dresden, Ohio, home, where he stayed until 2 a.m. asking about Brad. During that same winter of 2006, he visited with Justin Hoffman’s and Nate Rock’s families at their homes. He also spent six hours with Edie Deyarmin at a Bob Evans restaurant, listening as she shared stories about her son, Nathan. He always had a list of questions in tow: “Have you dreamt about your son? Do you believe in an afterlife? Can you tell me about the day you found out?”
Any initial worries the families may have had quickly waned once they spoke to Tisdale.
“At the time, I was wary of trusting anyone,” Deyarmin says. “But then I met Michael and saw how easy he was to speak to. And he’d remember all the little things I’d say, so it was comforting to know someone was listening.”
Over the course of the next two and a half years, Tisdale returned to Ohio several times, compiling hours of interviews with families, friends and community members. The play was scripted entirely from the words of the Marines’ loved ones. Even the “ums” and regionalisms (such as saying “an” instead of “and”) were left intact for authenticity’s sake.
The first act conveys “what it’s like to love someone, have them leave, communicate with them halfway across the world and then find out they’re gone,” Tisdale says. “The second half is how you carry on.”
The play — named for the gold stars used to remember fallen armed services members — isn’t about the politics of war but instead coping with its tragedies.
“I promised [the families] that the only politics of the piece would be from their mouths, and that I wouldn’t use their losses as a platform for me,” he says. “What I wanted to do was give them an opportunity to speak, to share their memories and the experiences that have helped them heal.” Goldstar, Ohio runs Oct. 16 through Nov. 8 at Cleveland Public Theatre. Tickets are available for $10 to $20. For show times and ticket information, call (216) 631-2727 or visit cptonline.org.