ROBERT “SAM” KELLEY in 1969.

ROBERT “SAM” KELLEY in 1969.

BRUNSWICK

“The ANZACS: Lest We Forget,” a show that tells the story of the beginnings of the Australia New Zealand Army Corps and the part they played in World War 1, will open at The Theater Project in Brunswick on April 6 — the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into WW1.

The Brennan family

In late 1967, as the Vietnam war was raging, Portland native Robert “Sam” Kelley decided to enlist. A recent college graduate, he completed basic and advanced individual training at Fort Dix before moving on to Officer Candidate School and Airborne training at Fort Benning, and spent 6 months at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne before heading to Vietnam in May of 1969. With the 199th LIB and the 82nd Airborne, Kelley went on many “search and destroy” missions in the rice paddies and jungles south of Saigon, living through endless fire-fights and ambushes, returning home in May of 1970.

Back in the U.S., Kelley began his career as an entrepreneur, business owner and family man. Sometime in the 1980s, a friend of Kelley’s living in the Philippines came across a piece of music he thought Sam would like — a cassette tape that told the stirring story of the Australia New Zealand Army Corps and their part in the First World War, featuring tunes like “Gallipoli,” “A Song for Grace” and “Rose of No- Man’s Land.” Kelley liked it, and the music became a part of his life, often playing in the cassette deck of his car while he drove with his family.

Many years later, thanks to the internet, Kelley’s son discovered that the music and story they’d been listening to for so long was the work and story of author Ted Egan. Egan’s mother Grace Brennan, had three brothers who volunteered to join the Australian Light Horse in 1914 — Jack Brennan was killed at Gallipoli and Bob Brennan served three years straight in the Western Front. Martin Brennan went to the Middle East after Gallipoli, engaged in many conflicts, was briefly a prisoner of war, escaped, and rejoined his regiment. Egan notes that he wrote “A Song for Grace” to record, word for word, the story his mother told him when he was twelve, adding that “she was the most anti-war person I have ever known.”

Inspiration strikes

Delighted to have a deeper understanding of where this music came from, Kelley began sharing it with his family and friends. Unable to get the story of the Brennan family out of his mind, he also asked them whether they thought this material could be a play.

“And everyone said ‘Oh, absolutely — I can see the whole thing,’” Kelley said. “That’s when I decided to go for it.”

Three years ago, Kelley approached Michele Livermore Wigton, Theater Project actor and playwright, who brought the idea to Executive Director Wendy Poole. Poole decided to commission the piece as the centerpiece of The Theater Project’s 45th Anniversary Season, a season dedicated to original works by Maine artists.

“Sam’s passion for the music has inspired us all,” said Poole, “and his very personal insight on the injustices of war has led to a beautiful relationship and an extremely meaningful play for all of us.”

What it’s all about

“The ANZACS: Lest We Forget” tells the story of World War 1 but, in Kelley’s words, what it really tells is the story of all wars.

“There is always an initial enthusiasm and patriotism that quickly changes once people start dying,” said Kelley. “And the absolute devastation that war has not only on soldiers but also on their loved ones — that’s not just something from World War 1, or Vietnam, or Iraq and Afghanistan. We’re sharing the story of the Brennan brothers and their family — but it’s a universal story.”

“The ANZACS: Lest We Forget” runs April 6-15. Performance times are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sunday April 15 at 2 p.m. All performances are pay-what-you-want, with a suggested price of $20, available online anytime at theaterproject.com or at (207) 729-8584. The Theater Project is located at 14 School St. in Brunswick.


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