by Ken Urban

Every playwright remembers the first one. As I tell my students, you never fully understand your play until you see it on its feet. It’s a lesson felt most palpably at your first production, in front of your first audience, seeing your words come alive. Rich Bencivenga (BA 2006) understands that lesson well. After readings at the Edison Valley Playhouse and on Livingston Campus, Bencivenga’s play, Flight of the Iron Butterfly, was first produced during this year’s Reunion Weekend, and debuted at The George Street Playhouse in August. While the show is the culmination of a two-year journey for Bencivenga, its history stretches back over sixty years, tracing the story of Bencivenga’s grandfather during World War II.

Bencivenga was a student in the introductory and advanced playwrighting courses I taught at Rutgers in 2005 and 2006. In the advanced course, I asked the students to write a play unlike what they had written before, and to push themselves out of their comfort zones. I remember Bencivenga decided to abandon a project early in the semester because there was something else he felt he had to write.

Bencivenga’s grandfather, John Paul Czahor, ill with cancer, began talking about his military service, something he had rarely done in the past. A member of the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division, Czahor and his men parachuted onto the beaches of Normandy on that fateful June day in 1944. For his service, Czahor received the Bronze Star for valor in duty and a Purple Heart for his injuries. Like many veterans, he lived with the mental scars of combat that often made his nights restless. Czahor, now reaching the end of his life, felt the time was right to let these memories go. Hearing these stories compelled Bencivenga: he needed to write about his grandfather’s military service. As is often the case, the play finds the writer.

Both a memory play and a Bildungsroman, Flight of the Iron Butterfly opens with the narrator, Old John, who tells us of his decision to join the military. A younger John, along with a chorus, enact the seminal events in John’s life: from his decision to leave the family farm in Hillsborough, New Jersey, to basic training and jump school, to that fateful leap onto the beaches of Normandy. A lepidopterist, an authority on butterflies, interrupts the story on occasion. John is the audience’s butterfly, who we see grow from a confused Jersey boy to a hero in battle. Despite the play’s valorization of the wartime experience, its closing lines remind us of the mental scars of those who fought in WWII. “No. I’ll never go back,” Young John says. “Normandy means too much for me to go for a visit. As long as I know it’s there, that’s all I need of Normandy.”

The May production at Rutgers was a homecoming for both author and audience, which was comprised of veterans from the Rutgers Living History Society—men who knew the story of Young John well—and students from Hillsborough High School, where Bencivenga graduated from in 2001. When I asked what it was like to be in the audience during his first production, he remarked, “I was deeply affected by the responses I saw and heard from people around me. I understood the play in a whole new way.”

The other valuable lesson about seeing your play on its feet for the first time is how the experience makes you hungry for more.