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Ex-Marine takes stage for unlikely role

Marines are synonymous with tenacity in battle. Now one of them is earning a different kind of reputation, this time for his stage presence.

John Murray, 23, of Clearwater joined the Marines in August 2001 after graduating from Dunedin High School. He spent time training in California before shipping out for Iraq.

"I did three tours of about six months each," Murray said this week . "The hardest thing about that was being without friends and family for so long."

Murray served as a truck driver, machine gunner and fire team leader for the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Since completing his service in August 2005, he has added another title, actor.

Murray plays the character of John, youngest son of King Henry II and Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the play The Lion in Winter, at Clearwater's Francis Wilson Playhouse.

It's a 12th-century soap opera with battles, a love triangle, and the corruption and greed of a royal family.

"It's fun to play (John) because he is different from me," Murray said. The character is a 16-year-old, whiny wimp, vying for his parents' attention. "He's a brat, basically, and that's not what I am.".

Onstage, Murray "is pretty much making a fool out of himself because his character is a fool," said Sharon Price, box office manager at the Playhouse. John "provides the comic relief."

This isn't Murray's first play. He performed in high school, and even while deployed for training in California. Murray, whose parents and brother live in Clearwater, plans to act in more plays in the Tampa Bay area to gain experience, then head to New York City to try to make acting his career.

"I just love being on stage, getting a good reaction from the audience," Murray said. "I've always wanted to be an actor."

But he joined the Marines figuring that service "would probably be one of the hardest things I'd ever have to do in my life - it would make everything else seem easier."

Acting surely would have to easier than the most-memorable action he saw in Iraq. While on the way to the city of Fallujah, Murray's unit got caught in an ambush. His lieutenant was killed and three of his friends were wounded.

But he recalls rewards of the deployment there, too.

"The highlight of my Marine career would probably be seeing the statue of Saddam (Hussein) get pulled down. It symbolized the end of a regime. It felt like we did something good."

Said his director in Lion, Linda Weir, "We were absolutely astonished when he told us" he had been in the Marines. Weir added that Murray's appearance - a baby face, and a tall, slender build - is not the image she usually has when thinking of the Marines.

"To know that this kid was a U.S. Marine and did three tours in Iraq stunned us. We were very proud when we found out."

Some of his Marine training is apparent, she now realizes. "Obviously in the military, it's a disciplined environment, and theater is as well," Weir said. "He works hard" and "does a very good job" onstage.

Murray draws another comparison between acting and the Marines' legendary greeting to former members of the Corps, Semper Fi - always faithful.

"The friendships you make in the Marine Corps, they're always and forever," he said. And "the people I met in this show, we're all friends now. We've shared an experience."


The Lion in Winter runs through Sunday at the Francis Wilson Playhouse, 302 Seminole St. For tickets, call 727-446-1360