A Family Affair: "I'll Be Seeing You" at U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre
Because nearly 900 letters were exchanged between soldier-journalist Charles Kiley and his fiancee, Billee Gray, during World War II, Ann Arbor’s David Kiley has an amazing window into not only his parents’ courtship, and their lives as young adults, but also what it was like to live in that era, both on the front lines and at home.
For this reason, he collaborated with his sister (Anne Kiley) and brother-in-law (Thomas Pellechia) to edit their 2015 book, Writing the War: Chronicles of a World War II Correspondent. But because Kiley -- director of communication at U-M’s Ross School of Business and publisher/editor-in-chief of the professional theater website EncoreMichigan.com -- is passionate about theater, he soon started thinking about how to adapt the material into a stage play.
The resulting show, I’ll Be Seeing You, will have its world premiere at U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre this weekend, with performances on Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. In the show, two actors play Charles and Billee as they write and read each other’s letters; plus, two radio singers perform music from that era, while a radio announcer -- played by Kiley, who’s also making his directing debut -- offers news from the front.
Kiley said I’ll Be Seeing You was partly inspired by A. R. Gurney’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated epistolary play Love Letters, “but I always knew that I wanted to have music from the time, that [my parents] wrote about,” said Kiley. “So, that's when I came up with the device of having the singers perform as if they are on the radio, in a radio studio of the time. I also felt that that the story needed some kind of ‘news’ sprinkled in the show to keep the timeline of the war on track in the audience's mind. That's when I started listening to actual broadcasts from Edward R. Murrow and other newsmen of the time.”
Though Charles Kiley had experience as a civilian reporter, he was drafted as an infantryman before landing an assignment with the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. He covered the Normandy invasion, flew on bombing raids, and was the only reporter permitted into the building where German surrender negotiations were happening with Eisenhower’s staff. Billee Gray, meanwhile, was a Red Cross volunteer, a defense plant worker, and coastal airplane spotter. The two only had three or four opportunities to spend time together before Charles proposed, and then he shipped out.
Kiley’s extended family has been excited to see the couple’s letters getting a second (and third) life.
“It was a family affair to start with since I collaborated with my sister and brother-in-law,” said Kiley. “We had a workshop performance in New Jersey, where I’m from, with lots of family and friends. There were lots of tears in the audience.”
With hundreds of letters to choose from, though, the biggest challenge involved editing the material down. “I have left a couple of longer letters in because I can’t bear to cut the history any more than I already have,” said Kiley.
Indeed, Kiley is quick to point out that although the show has music and romance, the dark backdrop of war -- including the Holocaust, the loss of family members, and brushes with danger -- underpins the couple’s shared story.
“There is a moment that consistently gets to me,” said Kiley. “My father’s describing a German bombing run in London while he was there. It was a noon-time bombing, and the Germans hit a school -- while the children were having lunch. The image of these children eating their sandwiches and smiling and laughing, and then the thought that the Germans bombed at noon, in broad daylight, to inflict the most damage and death. That letter catches me in the throat every time I have tried to read it. I'm glad I am not playing Charles.”
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
“I’ll Be Seeing You” plays February 24-26 at U-M’s Arthur Miller Theatre, 1226 Murfin, Ann Arbor. Tickets cost $20 ($10 for students and seniors), with a block of free tickets available to veterans (plus one guest), thanks to a grant from Nissan North America. To purchase tickets, visit brownpapertickets.com. Veterans may inquire about tickets at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 734-276-7183.