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Theatre Review: "Soldier's Christmas" is Engrossing History Lesson

Soldier’s Christmas, a world premiere about the Christmas Truce of 1914, lines up beautifully with this year’s centennial celebration of the first year of WWI. The show closes Sunday after a run at Northern Kentucky University.
 
In a handsome production, Fort Thomas playwright Phil Paradis creates a sturdy fiction within the framework of heart-wrenching fact -- along the Western Front, pockets of soldiers in trenches on both sides of the battlefield stopped killing each other to celebrate Christmas and Peace on Earth and Goodwill toward Men.
 
Paradis’ play is about a group of Brits and a group of Germans who share the brief, spontaneous truce. Corporal Tug Wilson (Aaron Epstein) and Sergeant Gerhardt Dietrich (Jeffrey K. Miller) are the key players, after the two men meet accidentally in No Man’s Land.
 
They both do well, Epstein the pugnacious favorite who keeps getting promoted and demoted and Miller the farmer who longs to return to his family. The dozen supporting players form a solid ensemble. Soldier’s Christmas gets added dimension with appearances by the mothers, wives, sisters, sweethearts of various soldiers in both camps, and it’s these relationships, told through letters, that give the play humanity. 
 
The problem is that while Paradis gives us an engrossing history lesson, there’s no real sense of who these men are to each other. 
 
The phrase ‘Band of Brothers’ was made famous in WWII – but it’s a fraternity created in every war. You long for these men to talk about real things. Don’t tell us you’re exhausted. Be exhausted. Don’t allude to the ground turning frozen – tell us what it’s like to have trench foot. Don’t calmly remark on a war that was supposed to be ending but isn’t. What do fear and near-despair feel like? What does it feel like to have 24 hours when you know you won’t die?
 
The play gets a thoroughly considered production, well-executed by director Robert Allen. A star-filled night sky forms a backdrop, the stage floor is a map of the European war zone. Toward the rear a large fallen cross communicates the bombing of a church. 
 
Pre- and post-show there are scratchy recordings of hits of the day – “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” which became an anthem for the Brits; “K-K-K-Katy,” a jolly love song and lots more.
 
Applause to Tyler Duncan Gabbard (scenic); Larry Csernik (lighting) creates an impressive atmosphere for combat scenes; and Kevin Semancik (sound). 
 
Janet Powell’s costumes are period appropriate, and the women look terrific, but there’s a problem with the soldiers’ uniforms that probably has a lot to do with a small budget for an independent production like this one. The uniforms look new, when they should look as if they’ve lived through weather and stink and mud and dying comrades for five months. But that costs real money.
 
The spanking clean uniforms, Paradis’ occasionally neat stereotypes, and the men’s tendency to sing hymns as if they’re the defiant rendition of “La Marseillaise” in “Casablanca” – a century ago they would have been devoutly singing to God. They’d be devoutly singing to God today. 
 
Not everyone is going to long for a deeper look at this moment in time – but Soldier’s Christmas would be stronger for it.
 
Be on the lookout for future productions!
 
Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
 
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