Something extraordinary happened, 101 years ago, on the battle fields of World War I. Peace broke out. Spontaneously men on both sides, with only a scant patch of land between them, rose from the trenches and sang songs, exchanged gifts and played soccer on the frozen field. It was Christmas and they were all tired of the brutality of warfare in the modern age, which included horrors beyond imagination, thanks to technological advances. They were tired of killing and too tired to care if they would be killed when they rose from their hiding places and ventured forth to greet men they’d called their enemies only moments earlier.
North Carolina Stage Company’s sparsely staged production of All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914, written by Peter Rothstein, tells the tale of these men and these moments with epic emotional impact. Charlie Flynn-McIver directs the ensemble including members of Cantaria: The Gay Men’s Chorus Of Asheville, singing a capella. Three of the ablest actors in Western North Carolina take the stage at podiums, reading the actual words — culled from the journal entries — of the men who fought on both sides. Willie Repoley, Michael McCauley and Cantori Swann embody the lives, souls, passions and fears of those who lived and died on the battle fields. There are even comments from the Pope and Winston Churchill woven into the spoken-word of the show.
One of the most powerfully chilling moments comes with a single Cantaria member singing “Silent Night” in German, which inspires both sides to leave the trenches and greet one another as men instead of enemies.
The journal entries start with the jingoistic calls to war and the jubilant attitudes of the young British men. They march away, determined that the fight will be quick and they will be home by Christmas. As the show progresses and reality sinks in, the words become more somber. There is an awe and wonder in the words of these men as the truce breaks out, followed by thoughts of military leaders who are apoplectic at the sudden ceasing of hostilities. There is a foreboding feeling that, if things aren’t stopped, peace could actually break out all over and draw the war to a premature close. A single shot from the British lines reignites the war.
This is less theater in the traditional sense, and more of a dramatic concert. In the presentation, however, there is no need for elaborate staging and design. Simple is best, and it is expertly handled by Flynn-McIver and company. The performance is transfixing in its stillness, while the words and songs wash over the audience with a profoundly moving effect.
WHAT: All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914
WHERE: North Carolina Stage Company, ncstage.org
WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 27. Wednesdays through Saturdays, a 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, at 2 p.m.. No shows on Thursday and Friday, Dec. 24 and 25. $16-36.