This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of that ghastly folly known as the Great War. Reflecting on the centennial of the First World War, this year saw a variety of commemorations—including art installations, books, lectures and concerts. Locally, City Lights Theater Company is staging the world premiere of Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War.

“The War to End All Wars,” as it was known, ushered in the 20th Century and the age of modern warfare in a torrent of brutality and tragic futility—forever changing the face of Europe and severely damaging a generation. But there is also beauty and humanity to be found amid the carnage.

Commissioned by City Lights, Truce dramatizes one of the most amazing stories of the war: that of the so-called Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and English soldiers spontaneously laid down their arms and fraternized with one another—playing ball, singing carols, trading cigarettes and food, and finding common ground in no-man’s land.

It’s a tale that would seem unbelievable—melodramatic even—were it fictional. The fact that it really happened, makes it one of the most powerful, and tragic, stories in recent history. The knowledge that the pointless conflict would ultimately drag on for three more bloody years, costing millions of lives, makes the brief holiday ceasefire all the more heartbreaking.

Truce was written by Kit Wilder (who also directs) and Jeffrey Bracco, and is based on historical accounts, letters, and speeches, many of which are woven into the script. Personalizing the story are four main characters: gentle English poet Tommy Williams (Drew Benjamin Jones), his spirited wife Maggie (Allison Meneley), saintly German nurse Anna (Caitlin Papp), and charismatic Teutonic warrior Georg (Max Tachis). The company rounds out the cast with a rotating group of parents, generals, sisters, and brothers-in-arms. George Psarras deftly incorporates lovely arrangements of classic Christmas carols along with popular songs of the age, such as “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and “It’s A Long Way to Tipperary.”

Ron Gasparinetti’s excellent set design uses tangles of barbed wire to immediately inform the audience where they are. Archival photos of scenes from the trenches are projected on the stage, along with portraits of German and British leaders whose words are delivered via voiceover. City Lights has also partnered with History San Jose to display a nice array of photos and books in the lobby.

As a someone with a long-held interest in the Great War, especially as depicted through poetry and music, Truce did not disappoint. The Christmas Truce is such an utterly compelling story, so perfect for dramatizing (as it also was in the recent film Joyeaux Noel) that it would be difficult to go wrong. Simply reading historical accounts of the event would be enough to provide a moving experience.

But City Lights’ combination of words, visuals, and beautiful music make it all the more astonishing. The cast handles the singing well, with the women sweetly harmonizing and the men appropriately folksy in their delivery. The acting was also quite strong, although the British accents were uniformly bad and distracting at times, rendering certain characters difficult to understand. A little work with a dialect coach might have gone a long way.
The play’s structure was both creative and effective—mixing in flashback scenes that provided background information on the main characters and snippets of historical accounts that gave the production a wider context.

Though the audience knows going into this play that the truce can only be temporary, it is impossible to avoid the urge to cheer along with the soldiers when they refuse to fight and boo the clueless officers and generals who see their men as just—in the words of Anna—”spare parts” and machine-gun fodder. Flashes of photos from recent conflicts remind us that the futility of war is ongoing, and that the lesson of the Christmas Truce is still necessary today.
City Lights should take great pride in Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War. It’s a perfect and poignant offering for this holiday season and an excellent commemoration of both humanity’s capacity for destruction and its fervent desire for peace on Earth, elusive but occasionally within reach.

Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War
Thru Dec 21, Thu-Sat at 8pm, Sun at 2pm More info.