June 21, 2008

Family in the Spotlight: Back From Afghanistan, Navy Reservist Takes the Stage With His Children in Shorewood

By Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Jun. 21--Many parents returning from military duty overseas take their kids to Disney World or on an up-north getaway, but Chris Kitchen is reconnecting with his son and daughter in a novel way.

He's acting with them in a Shorewood Players production of "Jesus Christ Superstar."

A naval reserve commander who sings bass, Kitchen traded in his Navy uniform for the robes of an apostle while his daughter Madison, 11, and son Benjamin, 8, perform in the children's chorus.

Kitchen ended up auditioning for a part in the show when he took his kids to tryouts shortly after returning in March from a yearlong tour of duty in Afghanistan.

"I'm now in a scene at the beginning of the show with my daughter and one in the second act with my son. That's really cool," said Kitchen. "You don't have to pretend you have an interest in an actor, because you already have a bond with them."

A year ago Kitchen was serving as garrison commander of Forward Operating Base Apache in Qalat, a town in southern Afghanistan, and trying to stay in touch with his wife, Nicole, and children through the Internet and phone calls. But it wasn't the same.

She sent him a DVD of the Shorewood Players production of "Wizard of Oz" so he could see Benjamin and Madison performing as Munchkins. He also managed to watch streaming video of his daughter performing in another production, though he had to watch it at 3 a.m. on a dusty laptop in Afghanistan.

Like every parent serving in a combat zone, Kitchen missed seeing the day-to-day changes in his kids.

"It was very unsettling to know what you were missing. One of the ways you get through it is you know everyone is going through the same thing as you. You spend a lot of time talking about your families over there," said Kitchen, 40, whose convoy last fall missed a suicide bomber by minutes.

While Kitchen acted in high school theatrical productions and played rhythm guitar in a band while serving aboard the USS Mount Vernon during his active duty with the Navy, he's the family novice when it comes to the theater. Both kids, who go to Lake Bluff Elementary School in Shorewood, have acted in community theater, and Madison was in First Stage Children's Theater's production last fall of "Lilly's Purple Plastic Purse."

Madison has taken her dad under her wing, drilling him on dance steps, teaching him song lyrics and giving him acting pointers. He takes direction well, she says.

"It's really fun because I've never been the teacher to someone older than me," said Madison, adding, "I know I'm going to be nervous for my dad. You're afraid that all the stuff that you taught him will just -- go."

While her father was gone, Madison said, she grew six inches and her brother also got taller. She also noticed a change in her dad when she saw him again.

"Physically, the only thing was his hair got grayer and he's in better shape because he got really, really skinny. But mentally I think he changed a lot from what he's seen and experienced over there," she said.

Normally he's busy with his civilian job at Miller Brewing Co. and drilling once a month with his Navy Reserve unit in Akron, Ohio. He's able to fit "Jesus Christ Superstar" into his schedule because he had time off when he returned from Afghanistan. Nicole Kitchen said the audition and rehearsals have let her husband bond with his kids.

"There's a lot of everyday stuff that he missed that you just can't get back," she said. "That's what he's experiencing with this."


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