One hundred years ago, the great powers of Europe embarked on what was then thought to be the "war to end all wars." Of course, it wasn't; but it did take killing to an unprecedented industrial scale. Pretty cheery topic for a Christmas play, huh? Well, you might be surprised to learn about one glimmer of hope in this generally horrifying war: the Christmas truce of 1914, when German and British soldiers laid down their guns and met in the "no man's land" between their respective trenches to sing carols and share holiday cheer. It really happened and it's the subject of Ricardo Pérez González's heartwarming In Fields Where They Lay, which is now being remounted at the New Ohio Theatre after a 2009 world premiere at Hudson Guild Theatre.
A cast of 11 re-creates the first year of this cataclysmic war, with much of the focus on one section of British soldiers along the western front. There's Private Giles Andersen (Nicholas Carter), a 16-year-old who lied about his age when he enlisted so he could follow his best friend Teddy (Spencer Davis Milford) to the front. They're joined by Pfeiffer (Stephen James Anthony), Dietrich (Jeff Gonzalez), and Jamaican recruit Private Phillip Osbourne (Equiano Moisieri). Sergeant James Woodward (Zack Calhoon) keeps them in line, enforcing the orders of Lieutenant Reginald Jeffries (Joe Kolbow), a Henry V wannabe with an Oxford education.
The play opens with the men reciting a gruesome anti-German chant. "Cut out their tongues; tear out their eyes," they chant as they march toward the audience. With smudged faces and heavy woolen coats (costumes by Caitlin Cisek), the men embody the misery of trench warfare. Constant rain and heavy bombardment (lighting by Wilburn Bonnell, sound by Mark Van Hare) exacerbate the gloom.
Pérez González imagines this war with Shakespearean scope, calling for trenches, battlefields, and foxholes. Clifton Chadick's useful set of rolling scaffolds festooned with sandbags and wooden planks easily transforms into multiple spaces. Director Brad Raimondo marshals the performers and design for this 100-minute play with mixed results: Sometimes it's incredibly moving; other times, confusing.
Pérez González's text is occasionally overwrought, especially in the earlier scenes. A florid-movement poem set during a British charge on German defenses is more confusing than illuminating. An earlier set of overlapping scenes seems more a contrivance for showing off than a means to deepen the story. Pérez González is best when he's able to elucidate the humanity of his subjects with simple and unpretentious language. That's also when the actors really soar.
Mosieri delivers a particularly impressive performance as the sensitive and well-read Jamaican. His frank and unsentimental monologue about how he believes he will be remembered for fighting this war (he doesn't think he will) is among the show's best moments. Gonzales is unsettlingly real in his excellent portrayal of prickly Germanophobe Dietrich. Christine Perrotta does a fine job as the cast's lone female, Pfeiffer's wife, Catherine, who floats in intermittently to read a letter from England.
In Fields Where They Lay is one of those plays that really does get better as it goes along. It's difficult not to feel verklempt when coming from behind the audience you hear a perfectly harmonized German version of "Silent Night." As imagined by The Dreamscape Theatre, this Christmas miracle is as uplifting and tear-jerking as one could hope. It's made tragic by the lingering knowledge that it won't last and won't be repeated in the subsequent three Christmases of the war.