Review: 'All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914' a Yuletide Tonic

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 29, 2021

Michael Jennings Mahoney, Bryan Miner, and Alexander Holden in 'All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.'
Michael Jennings Mahoney, Bryan Miner, and Alexander Holden in 'All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.'  (Source:Nile Scott Studios)

Both figuratively and literally, much of the past five years or so has been marked by a sense that the world is on fire. Comity, unity, and even simple decency and civility seem harder to come by. Wouldn't it be nice to find a moment of basic shared humanity?

The Greater Boston Stage Company's production of Peter Rothstein's documentary play "All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" offers audiences such a moment. Drawing from writings, official documents, and interviews about the remarkable occasion on Christmas Eve of 1914, in the first year of World War I, Rothstein creates a portrait of a singular, transcendent event in which soldiers from both sides took it upon themselves to lay down their arms, venture into the deadly "no man's land" between German and Allied trenches, and put the war on hold for a time, as they forged bonds of human connection that went deeper than, and soared above, strife between nations.

Bryan Miner, Stephen Markarian, Alexander Holden, Michael Jennings Mahoney, and Brad Peloquin
Bryan Miner, Stephen Markarian, Alexander Holden, Michael Jennings Mahoney, and Brad Peloquin  (Source: Nile Scott Studios)

The play's ten cast members recite snippets from those writings and documents that describe how soldiers that had been firing at one another a short time earlier — and would resume the shooting a little later on — sang holiday carols and made presents of tobacco, chocolate, and other goods to one another. At one point, the great uniter of all European nations — soccer — literally came into play, as the soldiers, despite being cold and weary, summoned the energy for a match on the frozen muddy ground. (Tradition holds that the Germans prevailed 3-2, but only because the commanding officers, finding the game to be a step too far in the fraternization of the opposing forces, put a stop to it.)

The play is a study in contrasts, starting out with boyish high spirits as the soldiers set off in August of 1914 for what they naively think will be a manly adventure. Expectations at the start of the war were that the conflict would not persist more than a few months. As Christmas approached, drenching rains gave way to freezing conditions, and peace was nowhere in sight. (Indeed, the war would stretch on for four long years.)

From spirited optimism to freezing misery, then, and from the anticipation of a grand adventure to the uncertainties of a protracted conflict in which tens of millions of men were mobilized, and millions killed or wounded. But the play finds far more similarities between the two sides, including the soldiers' complaints; the way the cast's actors cross from one side of the to the other, swapping accents as they adapt new characters, underscores the essential humanity of both armies.

The story unfolds on a stage littered with crates, against a deep black backdrop on which tiny bright lights are scattered like stars in the night sky. A dim, rusty moon hangs in the sky, its illumination wan and reminiscent of spilled blood; cold blue light, like wintry starlight, suffuses the scene. Depending on the moment, the scenic design caries a sense of bone-wracking cold and existential lostness — or, conversely, a sense of mystique and majesty. It's the good humor of the cast (and the small character moments in a work that doesn't rely much on specific individual characters) that makes the difference. A sprinkling of snow completes the illusions, both of desolation and of human warmth persisting despite the harshness of elements natural and political.

Most effectual, however, are how holiday songs are interspersed throughout the play's brief run time (about 70 minutes). From "Stille Nacht" (a rendition of which by a lone German soldier, tradition says, was the instigating factor in the unofficial and unapproved "truce") to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," "Angels We Have Heard on High," and even "Auld Lang Syne," the cast raise their voices in harmony and make a joyful noise. (That cast, by the way, includes the father-son duo of Christopher Chew and Caleb Chew; Alexander Holden; David Jiles, Jr.; Michael Jennings Mahoney; Stephen Markarian; Zachary McConnell; Bryan Miner; Gary Thomas Ng; and Brad Peloquin.)

It's impossible, after the social isolation and societal fractiousness of the past half decade —†and the last year and a half of the pandemic, especially — not to find the story moving even in the abstract. On stage, performed with song and brought to life by a likable cast and Ilyse Robbins' spirited direction, "All is Calm" is nothing less than a tonic, as well as an uplifting reminder of what human beings, social animals that we are, can do once we choose to move beyond antagonism, belligerence, and resentment.

Or, as the friend who went to the show with me observed, if men fighting a (real, not simply cultural) war can find a respite of peace on their tattered patch of Earth and good will toward their fellows, then there's no reason why we can't find that same good will and hopefulness today, as the Christmas season approaches once again. "All is Calm" reminds us what it feels like to experience a little simple, human joy.

"All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914" continues at the Greater Boston Stage Company through Dec. 23.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.