Review: GHOSTS OF WAR at Griffin Theatre

Review: GHOSTS OF WAR at Griffin Theatre

Pictured: Sam Krey. Photo by Evan Hanover.

By Bec Willett

Ryan Smithson was in high school when 9/11 occurred. “You guys are living history,” his history teacher told him. So impacted by this experience, at 17 he enlisted in the Army Reserves and at 19 he was deployed to Iraq, not in a position we might see in a video game or movie, but as a Heavy Construction Equipment Operator, a self-described G.I. Joe-Schmoe. On his return, it was studying literature which enabled him to grapple with his experiences and PTSD. Sparked by a creative writing assignment on “something that has been destroyed,” GHOSTS OF WAR evolved into an autobiographical novel. Now adapted into a solo show by Griffin Theatre Company’s Artistic Director William Massolia, this isn’t a story of heroism, but the discovery of identity and the best of humanity in the heart of war.

As Ryan, actor Sam Krey is an affable storyteller, his confidence completely catching up with him about halfway through the show. However, the focus here is not about the actor driving home a particular emotion or ideas, but rather the events of the story – allowing their autobiographical nature and American emotional memory to create the meaning and impact. It makes for a smart adaptation, further promoted by Jason Gerace’s clean, purposeful direction and John Kelly’s lighting design. The lighting not only creates mood and location but also serves as a support mechanism for Krey, helping to create forward movement, similar to a scene partner to play against. When Krey sits in the stillness of this momentum, we are provided with the most moving moments: the value of a simple bottle of water in a war zone, the pain of separation, the discovery of connection without language.

On 9/11 I was walking along a Munich street with the family I was nannying for when we were stopped by smoke and flashes on a TV in a storefront window. It’s a memory that is easily accessible but without (at the time) personal attachment to the country, for me the overwhelming grief is not there. Yet for Americans, I know it is – a grief so overwhelming it has become ingrained in the American identity. GHOSTS OF WAR gives a voice to that grief, shows us how it became a war, and evolved into one man’s discovery of how humanity defies expectations.

GHOSTS OF WAR runs through May 6th. For more information visit

About author

Bec Willett

Bec Willett is an Australian, Chicago-based director, designer, educator, and writer. She has worked on projects with an array of Chicago theater companies, including 20% Theatre, Chicago Dramatists, City Lit, Dandelion Theatre, Prologue Theatre, and Waltzing Mechanics. To find out more about her work and upcoming projects, please visit