‘The Body of an American’ inspired by ‘Fresh Air’ episode

Most listeners to Canadian photojournalist Paul Watson’s 2007 interview on NPR’s “Fresh Air” heard a harrowing story of a traumatized war correspondent and the atrocities he witnessed on the battlefield. Promoting his memoir, “Where War Lives,” Watson recounted the story of his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. At the moment that he snapped the photo, Watson insists that he heard the voice of the soldier saying, “If you do this, I will own you forever.”

Tuned in to the show that day, poet and playwright Dan O’Brien instead heard a ghost story, one that resonated deeply enough with him that he immediately reached out to Watson to initiate a vaguely defined collaboration. “I love Victorian ghost stories, and Victorian ghost stories for me are all about repression,” O’Brien says. “All these characters are repressing emotions or sexuality, and then these feelings manifest as something that haunts them. I’ve written about psychologically haunted people for a long time — and think of myself somewhat that way — so I had the notion that on a larger thematic level the play could take a look at things lurking in the cultural subconscious.”

O’Brien’s initial email turned into a lengthy correspondence, an eventual meeting in the Arctic Circle where Watson was then stationed, and finally to a friendship that O’Brien considers to be the closest in his life. It also resulted in O’Brien’s 2013 poetry collection “War Reporter” and in his play “The Body of an American,” which begins previews this week at the Wilma Theater.

The play, directed by Michael John Garcés, is essentially about its own creation, tracing the pair’s correspondence and evolving relationship through two actors (Ian Merrill Peakes and Harry Smith) who also portray more than 20 other characters that O’Brien and Watson meet along the way. It was through the process of writing the piece, O’Brien explains, that he finally discovered why he found that accidental radio encounter so riveting.

“I knew that I was unsettled and haunted by Paul’s story and even his voice,” he says. “But in addition to feeling moved or spooked, I also felt like he was very similar to me.

“I don’t go into war zones; I’m a poet and a playwright. I tend to spend too much time thinking about myself and my past or my problems, so in that way he’s completely different. He’s a writer and photographer who’s engaged with the world and telling other people’s stories. But I identified with his psychological struggles. I don’t have PTSD but I come from a very emotionally, verbally and somewhat physically abusive childhood. So I felt like I understood him in some ways and didn’t understand him in others, and wanted to use the writing to try to figure both of those out.”

‘The Body of an American’

Jan. 7-Feb. 1, opening night Jan. 14

Wilma Theater

265 S. Broad St.

$25, 215-546-7824