The theatrical event that contains the most Christmas Spirit might not be at either Radio City or Madison Square Garden. In Fields Where They Lay, an incredible new play by Ricardo Pérez González, doesn’t feature Santa, or Elves, or Grinches, or Who’s. It mentions Christmas trees, but doesn’t show them. It takes place in 1914, in the midst of the blood and carnage of WWI. However, it explores what many call a special and unusual event in history: The Christmas Truce of 1914.
The Director’s note in the program describes the event: “On Christmas Eve, 1914 thousands of soldiers crouching in the muddy, reeking trenches of the First World War’s Western Front laid down their arms to join in song and celebration with their enemies.” González’s play primarily focuses on a specific British troop who witnesses the event firsthand. We meet the optimistic Giles Anderson (Nicholas Carter), the pessimistic half-German Dietrich (Jeff Gonzalez), and Thomas Pfeiffer (Stephen James Anthony), who spends most of the play exchanging letters to his wife Catherine (Christine Perrotta).
Director Brad Raimondo directs the performance with cinematic fluidity, deftly navigating the occasional slow spots of the script. His biggest accomplishment comes in the world he has created for this play — he not only emulates the trenches of WWI, but evokes a high-stakes world on the edge of destruction. For most of the play, we are on the edge of our seats, fearful that the world could come to an end at any second. Raimondo’s bleak but beautiful vision is well-served by the design team. Clifton Chadick’s stark set contains multiple surprises, including a simple but stunning trick involving the back wall towards the end of the piece. The apocalyptic atmosphere is assisted by Wilburn Bonnell’s equally stark (but beautiful) lighting and Mark Van Hare’s sound design. Stellar music direction is provided by Anna Ebbeson — the men vocalize and harmonize on Christmas carols such as "The First Noel" beautifully.
Raimondo also creates a convincing ensemble out of his actors. We believe the comradery of the troop, and share their fear of imminent death. Each actor contributes to the action while creating their own character. Joe Kolbow is amusingly pompous as Lieutenant Reginald Jeffries. Spencer Davis Milford brings a touching naiveté and innocence to Private Theodore “Teddy” Jones, and Equiano Mosieri is stoic and strong as Philip Osborne, the sole black man (Jamaican, to be specific) in the troop. Milford and Mosieri share a poignant scene about an hour into the play that features a riveting monologue from Osborne about what it means not only to fight as a black soldier for Britain, but also to be a black man in England.
What makes In Fields Where They Lay stand out is its unsentimental and stark approach to its subject matter. The play could have easily been an educational recitation of that legendary Christmas Eve, but by focusing on the characters and their relationships, it becomes a powerful and realistic exploration of racism, prejudice, and the human bondage we all share. Although both the British and the German are on different sides of the battle, they are still fighting for the same thing: Freedom.
Unfortunately, the play and history show that after the ceasefire, both sides reverted to fighting each other. In spite of this, the play remains a comforting and moving testament to not only the spirit of Christmas, but also the spirit of humanity — if generosity and fellowship could bring two opposing sides together for one night, then the world has the potential be a wonderful place.
Through December 27 at the New Ohio Theatre