I”If you do this, I will own you forever.”

That is the fearsome warning Canadian photo-journalist Paul Watson believes he heard as he shot pictures of the battered, hog-tied (perhaps already dead) body of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, the American soldier notoriously dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia after the downing of his U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in 1993.

Watson’s photo of the horrific event was published in the Toronto Star and many American newspapers (in some cases cropped or touched up for reasons of “decorum”), and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. And the emotional impact of the photograph is often cited as one reason why the U.S. refused to intervene in the Rwandan genocide a year later. The whole experience has continued to spook Watson, although he went on to cover stories in many of the war-ravaged hell-holes of this globe.

The taking of that photograph, and its long-term impact on Watson’s psyche, was the catalyst for Dan O’Brien’s ferociously honest, astonishingly vivid two-man play, “The Body of an American,” now receiving its Midwest premiere in a breathtaking production by Stage Left Theatre. The second character in the drama is O’Brien himself, a writer nearly a generation younger than Watson, who became fascinated by the photographer’s story after hearing NPR’s Terry Gross interview him about his book, “Where War Lives.” As it happens that 2007 interview aired at the very moment when O’Brien, on a fellowship at Princeton, was trying to write a play about “historical ghosts.”

O’Brien reached out to Watson, and, among many other things, it is the tense, hard-won, on again-off-again friendship that would develop between the two men that drives this multilayered, superbly written 95-minute play. Under the knife-sharp direction of Jason A. Fleece, two bravura actors – the aptly grizzled Don Bender (as Watson) and the fleet, handsome Ryan Hallahan  (as O’Brien) – burn the stage with their intensity, physicality and fine feel for the playwright’s poetic language. They also periodically flip at warp speed into brief portrayals of other characters, from an eccentric psychiatrist to an acerbic Inuit.

Don Bender (left) and Ryan Hallahan inthe Stage Left Theatre production of Dan O'Brien's "The Body of an American." (Photo: Ian McLaren)

Don Bender (left) and Ryan Hallahan inthe Stage Left Theatre production of Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American.” (Photo: Ian McLaren)

‘THE BODY OF AN AMERICAN’
Highly recommended
When: Through June 19
Where: Stage Left Theatre
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $ prices
Info: (773) 883-8830;
http://www.stagelefttheatre.com
Run time: 95 minutes
with no intermission

As it happens, both Watson and O’Brien are wounded men, with very different experiences but similar emotional scars. Like many photo-journalists, Watson (who has born with one withered arm) wonders about the adrenalin-fueled desires that drive him to do his job, and to take photographs that might just have the poisonous allure of the voyeur. And his sense of the state of journalism at the moment – particularly the ratings game propelled by social media, and the reluctance of editors to spend money on international stories – only magnifies his cynicism and self-doubt.

O’Brien is plagued by self-doubt rooted in a troubled family life, and by the fact that his most upending experience in life was seeing the Twin Towers collapse in 2001, but at just safe enough of a distance. The crazy male-bonding trip he shared with Watson – a hilarious adventure into the farthest reaches of the Arctic – may well have changed him. And it is so thrillingly (and comically) enacted here that you can almost smell the dogsled huskies.

Ryan Hallahan (left) and Don Bender in the Stage Left Theatre production of Dan O'Brien's "The Body of an American." (Photo: Ian McLaren)

Ryan Hallahan (left) and Don Bender in the Stage Left Theatre production of Dan O’Brien’s “The Body of an American.” (Photo: Ian McLaren)

Anthony Churchill’s set and projections (with an exotic carpet covering a stage perched atop a bed of sand/snow) is richly enhanced by John Kohn III’s lighting and Stephen Gawritt’s sound design.

“The Body of an American” has arrived at the same moment “Chimerica,” another play focused on a hugely influential photograph, is on stage at TimeLine Theatre. And together they serve as crucial reminders that in an age of selfies it is still the fearless souls who venture into the nightmarish conflagrations of this world who make a difference, and more often than not pay a high price for doing so.