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Retired Army sergeant turns his experiences into unique musical theater

A portrait of O’Ferrell in the dressing room
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Jim O'Ferrell composed music while still in the Army that eventually became "The Sound of Guns,” which runs through Friday at The Firehouse Theater in Richmond.

In ‘Sound of the Guns,’ musician Jim O’Ferrell brings his memories of war to The Firehouse Theatre stage.

When Jim O’Ferrell was first deployed to Iraq in 2006, he found refuge in his guitar.

He’d been playing since he was 10 years old — when he used a Hank Williams songbook to teach himself how to play chords. While overseas, he gave other soldiers lessons with guitars shipped to him by his brother — and began to write songs about his time in the service.

“I was in a certain headspace at that time, and I just needed to get [the songs] out and put them on paper,” O’Ferrell said.

After retiring from the Army in 2008, he founded The Jim O’Ferrell Band — or The J.O.B — with guitarist Jason Crawford. The pair brought the songs O’Ferrell wrote from the battlefield back home to Richmond.

Now, the local act’s music serves as the score to a new musical called “Sound of the Guns,” written by O’Ferrell himself.

The show — which O’Ferrell calls “a veteran’s musical” — features The J.O.B playing pieces from its catalog live on The Firehouse Theatre stage while a four-person cast performs scenes based on the lives of O’Ferrell and his fellow soldiers.

Sgt. 1st Class Duncan, played by Alex Harris, serves as a semi-autobiographical stand-in character for O’Ferrell — holding guitar lessons and performing in on-base talent shows just like the playwright did years ago. Duncan’s fictional comrades Roberto “Bobby” Flores and Antonio Frazer — played by actors Enrique J. Gonzalez and Trevor Lawson, respectively — are composites of the many soldiers and veterans O’Ferrell has met.

In one particularly poignant moment of “Sound of the Guns,” Frazer — who has fallen on hard times after returning from war — recalls quietly watching the sunset while deployed in Baghdad. For a moment, it feels like there's “no war anywhere in the world.” The stage briefly glows orange and yellow before the lighting returns viewers to reality.

“Over the last 15 years, I've counseled soldiers who were still having issues. I met with them, and I heard their stories, and I listened … more than anything else, I just listened,” O’Ferrell said. “It's their stories that I garnered into these characters.”

To O’Ferrell, the titular song best encompasses the hero’s journey of the musical — following a soldier as he ventures into the unknown and then comes back to a place that will never feel the same again.

“The first and second verses are about the soldier realizing, ‘I'm the one that moves to the sound of the guns. I'm in this for real,’” O’Ferrell said. “Then the last verse is the return home. It’s the realization that home hasn't changed, I've changed. Everything's the same here, but not for me.”

Despite starting from an introspective place, O’Ferrell views songwriting as a collaborative process. After he writes a song, O’Ferrell lets each musician he works with build upon that base with their own contributions.

“I let my subject matter experts do their thing, and bring their creativity into it,” said O’Ferrell. “The final product never ends up the way that I hear it in my head. It's always different and better.”

That collaborative spirit is right at home in the world of theater. And — as a newcomer to the medium — O’Ferrell said he has been excited to lean on the strengths of Director Joel Bassin and the rest of his creative team.

“That’s one thing I learned in the Army: The sum of all the parts is where the strength is,” said O’Ferrell.

O’Ferrell said he hopes audiences can leave with a better understanding of veterans’ experiences — and that veterans in the audience can feel seen.

“I think one of the biggest problems that soldiers have — with PTSD and with all the subsequent things that come with that — is a feeling of isolation,” said O’Ferrell. “And I think that that's one of the things that we try to address with the play — that they're not weak, and they're not alone. There’s this whole play for them to identify with.”

The final performance of “Sound of the Guns” is set for Friday.