"Finish Line," from Boston Theater Company and the Boch Center. (Photo by Paul Marotta)

In ‘Finish Line,’ a Boston Bombing and the Bonding After

A new documentary play tells the stories of survivors and responders at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

On April 15, 2013, near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, two bombs went off. Three people were killed and hundreds were injured. Now four years (and 94 interviews) later, a play about the heroes from that day will open.

A few weeks after the event, Joey Frangieh, artistic director of Boston Theater Company, was scouring the web for firsthand accounts from the day when he found himself inundated with story after story about the perpetrators, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He was bothered that this was the primary focus of the coverage, instead of the people whose lives were affected by the attack. “We saw so many heroes come out of that day and so many survivors who were so strong and so determined and so brave,” says Frangieh. “And so many people’s lives were saved as a result of brave people who heard a bomb and ran in.”

It was this thought that lead him to create Finish Line (along with playwright Lisa Rafferty), a documentary play about the heroes and survivors of the Boston Marathon bombings. Finish Line: A Documentary Play About the 2013 Boston Marathon premieres March 15-26 at the Boch Center Schubert Theatre in Boston, presented in association with Boston Theater Company.

The play begins with the days leading up the marathon. Then, afterthe bombing happens, there is no explosion or noise, just silence. Finish Line then follows the aftermath, telling the stories of the people who were there at the finish line, the spectators who ran in to help, the nurses and doctors who treated the injured, and the first responders. Finish Line is about how a community came together to heal following a tragedy.

It’s been a mammoth undertaking for the young Boston Theater Company, which is just four years old. “The most powerful thing for me is how much of a collaboration it is,” says Frangieh, who is also directing Finish Line. “We have more than 500 people who’ve come together to create this one play.”

Sam Tanabe, Katy Sullivan, and Tonasia Jones in “Finish Line,” from Boston Theater Company and the Boch Center. (Photo by Paul Marotta)

It didn’t start out that big. Finish Line began out of Frangieh’s living room, where he ran Boston Theater Company with a team of twentysomething artists. They first reached out to friends and family directly affected by the bombings, asking them to spread the word. The snowball grew from there. In just four months, the team had collected 94 stories from survivors, newscasters, policemen and women, nurses, surgeons, and photographers—stories of heroism and loss, of resilience and love.

“I think the reason that people were so willing to speak with us is because from the very beginning we were very clear that we are a nonprofit,” Frangieh says emphatically. “We’re not doing this to make a profit, and we were not going to focus on the terrorists.” In fact, the team’s questionnaires for respondents didn’t involve the Tsarnaevs, and the show never mentions their names.

Even without that aspect of the story, the team of Finish Line had more than enough material to work with. Out of the 94 voices they spoke to, the team chose to narrow their focus to 14 stories, though Frangieh maintains that every person who contributed helped influence and shape the piece. The script quotes the interviews verbatim, keeping every “um” and every “you know.”

Stories that made the cut include Lee Ann Yanni, a spectator at the marathon whose leg was fractured in the explosion and who, after months of physical therapy, ran in the 2014 Marathon (Frangieh describes her as “fierce”). Another featured story was Erika Brannock’s, a school teacher whose leg had to be amputated after a bomb exploded right next to her, and who has since made it her mission to teach acceptance and kindness toward people with disabilities.

When the initial draft of Finish Line was completed, two closed staged readings of the script were held for the interview subjects. The responses were emotional, yet incredibly positive and supportive, with many happy tears. “It was really kind of a pivotal moment of, we have to do this—these people’s stories have to be told,” recalls Frangieh.

After a public presentation in 2016 at the NonProfit Center, a short article about the project ran in the Associated Press.  That story caught the attention of Boch Center president and CEO Joe Spaulding. He immediately called Frangieh and a collaboration was born between the Boch Center, which is usually a presenting house, and Frangieh’s much smaller theatre company. On seeing a reading of Finish Line of the first time, Spaulding called it “the most amazing experience I’ve had in many years—almost all my years.” There was dead silence for well over a minute when the read-through finished, he remembers.

Finish Line will be presented at the Boch’s biggest space, the Shubert Theatre, which seats 1,100. From every ticket sold, $3 goes towards the Martin Richard Foundation and Martin’s Park, two charities named after 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest person killed in the bombings.

For the Boch Center and Boston Theater Company, the collaboration has been fruitful for both parties. Frangieh has moved out of his living room into a real office at the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre and expanded his staff; Boston Theater Company now has the resources to support more local artists and expand its community outreach. Frangieh hopes the pairing “serves as model for large organizations to support smaller organizations. We’re able to share this story of resilience and bravery with so many more people because of it.”

There have been other mass killings and tragedies since that fateful day in April four years ago. By focusing on the people directly affected in this case, and showing how they supported and healed each other, the creators of Finish Line aim to inspire feelings of hope, not fear.

“We all have the ability to choose kindness,” says Frangieh. “When something bad happens, we all come together. But it doesn’t take a negative event to reach out to your neighbor. I hope that people take away the thought that we can be kind to one another, love is more powerful than hate. We saw it in Boston, Orlando, Paris, and Brussels.”

In other words, as Spaulding puts it, “It’s ‘Boston Strong’ at its best.”

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