Don Faust, Thayne Lamb, Daniel Williams, K. Vaughn Myers Jr., Drew DeKeyrel, Kirsten V. Myers Sr., Jorge Mendez, and Phil Tunnicliff in All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

This time of year is difficult for many. Even ordinarily joyful people endure pain if their loved ones are gone in December, whether temporarily or forever. In college, I became jaded about the forced jollity of the season and the myriad inescapable songs thereof, repeated ad nauseum. About 10 years later, my mom died on Christmas Day, so ever since, grief overwhelms all things merry and bright.

The Great War (as World War I was called; no one could imagine ever fighting so brutally over the globe again) brought about millions of military and civilian deaths. About two-thirds of those fighters died in battle. How, then, did workaday infantrymen, of both Allies and Central Powers, leave their trenches at Christmas to greet one another and exchange sweets, smokes, and schnapps? To laugh, sing, and play soccer together, and even help bury one another's dead?

Writer Peter Rothstein conceived All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 as a radio piece, and first presented it as a concert with nine singers and three actors in a church auditorium in 2007. Rothstein used the soldiers' own words, and Erick Lichte and Timothy C. Takach arranged the 30-or-so songs, including traditional carols, popular tunes of the day, and songs which had emerged from the war itself. The show takes only an hour, but there is much to absorb and appreciate.

Drew DeKeyrel, Jorge Mendez, Daniel Williams, Don Faust, and Kirsten V. Myers Sr. in All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

In the musical drama's current incarnation at the Black Box Theatre, nine performers both sing and act, representing the tens of thousands of fighters on both sides along the Western Front in Belgium, who, seemingly spontaneously, laid down weapons and ventured into no-man's-land to clasp their enemies' hands. This well-conceived, ingenious piece benefits enormously from the leadership and experience of its creative team: director Lora Adams (the Black Box's co-founder and artistic director) and musical director Ron May. On opening night, for me, All is Calm was an overwhelmingly bittersweet meditation on a real-life human miracle, far removed in time and space from the one in Bethlehem.

Adams' and May's nine outstanding performers – Ben Gougeon, Daniel Williams, Don Faust, Drew DeKeyrel, Jorge Mendez, Kirsten V. Myers Sr., Phil Tunnicliff, Thayne Lamb, and K. Vaughn Myers Jr. – take on a total of 39 personae among them, from fresh-faced innocents to weary veterans, and also deliver a few words from a couple of notables. The English, Irish, Scottish, French, German, and Bavarian characters are of different classes, many of them low-ranking soldiers, and the actors handle the various accents prodigiously, never letting the sounds drown out the words. Their understated, naturally acted performances are paradoxically vital in underscoring the drudgery and horrors of these men's war lives, while their characters lead us from optimistic enlistment fervor, to fighting and disillusionment, to the extraordinary Christmas truce, and back to war, also providing a brief epilogue.

I find All Is Calm's mix of ethnicities particularly significant, as I have German, French, and English ancestors, among others. In the Quad Cities area, many of us collectively spring from a multitudinous German population, commingled with sizable numbers of English, Scottish, Irish, and Belgian peoples. With intermarrying of European royalty historically common, British royalty was (and still is) heavily of German descent. Nonetheless, King George V, whose reign was during the Great War, changed the royal surname "Saxe-Coburg and Gotha" to "Windsor," due to what was delicately described as "anti-German sentiment" (which was more along the lines of prejudice and persecution in England, and America as well). As a German soldier poignantly puts it during the Christmas truce, "You are Anglo-Saxons; we are Saxons. We not want to fight you."

K. Vaughn Myers Jr., Philip Tunnicliff, Ben Gougeon, Thayne Lamb, Drew DeKeyrel, Jorge Mendez, Daniel Williams, Don Faust, and Kirsten V. Myers Sr. in All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914

As an a cappella devotee, I found the entire ensemble's magnificent voices and gorgeous blends entrancing, almost overwhelming. The lullaby-like carol from which the show's title is taken is "Stille Nacht" (which became "Silent Night" in English), and its well-crafted arrangement of the extended version in this show cycles through different keys and varying phrasing in three languages. The solos are just as soul-stirring. At the beginning of the show, Kirsten Myers calls us to witness the war with the lovely but melancholy "Will Ye Go Tae Flanders," first sung about a different dreadful war around 1705, describing the morbid custom of "battle tourism." Myers' fellow performers hum a bagpipe-like drone to accompany his simple yet subtly passionate delivery. Later, Tunnicliff, portraying Victor Granier of the Paris Opera, sings "Minuit Chrétiens" (an original French composition; the English translation became "O Holy Night"). This is one of my favorite seasonal songs, and Tunnicliff's rendition was honest and beautiful. (And I'm not just saying that because I was sitting next to longtime friends: his parents.)

With the costumes and set simple, as they must be, yet meticulously assembled, the actors form a moving mosaic in black kilts, overalls, and trousers, with occasional grey and blue, and touches of muted color. Character changes are helped by donning items including a greatcoat and Pickelhelmen, German spiked helmets. Movable foot lockers and boxes aid changes of scene, while everything is enhanced through designer (and Reader theatre reviewer) Roger Pavey Jr.'s lighting changes, plus, now and then, a little fog.

All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 is a beautifully conceived, artistically executed dramatization. Amidst such worldwide suffering, I can appreciate comfort and joy more when I marvel over moments of peace and love such as those recalled by this profoundly stirring show.


All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914 runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline IL) through December 17 (now show December 16), and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 and visiting

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