In Fields Where They Lay
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 15, 2009
Suppose they threw a war, but nobody came?
I am not the first to write those words and sadly will likely not be the last. Why does mankind never seem to get it: why do we constantly require new reminders—almost always in the shape of some piece of art—that war is senseless, absurd, terrible? In Fields Where They Lay is young playwright Ricardo Perez Gonzalez's latest exemplar of this genre. Its subject matter is the Christmas Truce that took place during the first year of World War I, when German and British soldiers effected an informal but real ceasefire from Christmas Eve through Christmas Night. Its theme is a powerful one: why do we fight?
Perez Gonzalez tells this true story through the eyes of a small group of British soldiers, themselves the kind of cross-section of humanity that this sort of drama seems to demand. There's Pfeiffer, the kind-hearted and brave one; Anderson, sweet and clownish; Jones, the innocent naif; Dietrich, the belligerent one, chided by his comrades as both a sourpuss and a coward; and Osbourne, a proud Jamaican black man whose maturity and skill belie his second-rate status in the company. There are two officers as well, Woodward, who is a good-natured cockney Sergeant, and Jeffries, the upper-class Lieutenant.
The play's first act sets up the tedious, treacherous stalemate of trench warfare against the Germans, as well as a variety of subplots involving the men, of which the most interesting and important is probably Osbourne's ongoing battle against the bigotry and/or ignorance of his fellows. It's not until the second act that we hear, from a distance, the caroling of the German soldiers: a lovely, simple version of "Stille Nacht" is what does the trick, because the Brits all recognize it as "Silent Night" and, inevitably, start to sing along. This brief section of the play is its most powerful, I think because the music all on its own has such potency. The truce itself follows, and it seems so easy and clear and self-evident that it becomes hard to comprehend why it can't persist—we're back to that hypothetical question I posed at the beginning of this review. Perez Gonzalez never fills in the back story about why World War I seemed so necessary at the time, but of course his idea here transcends that particular war or its particular politics.
Perez Gonzalez has a talent for writing deeply involving scenes, and the characters he has created here are easy to care about, even as they are archetypal. Brad Raimondo's direction is clear and effective; the piece is beautifully served by a splendid design, especially Kacie Hultgren's sets and Wilburn Bonnell's evocative lighting. Eight actors (plus two stretcher bearers and four offstage singers) perform the play beautifully, with particularly fine work offered by Carl Hendrick Louis as Osbourne, Zack Calhoon as Woodward, and Billy Griffin as Anderson.
In Fields Where They Lay has special resonance during this holiday time. Wouldn't it be nice if it seemed a completely irrelevant relic of our past instead?