Eric Samuelsen’s The Ice Front Probes Creative Work in Difficult Times

Daniel Beecher, Stephanie Howell, Robert Scott Smith, Christy Summerhays, Jay Perry, and Emilie Starr in Eric Samuelsen’s The Ice Front. Photo by Rick Pollock.

Historical dramatic theater pieces are often difficult to pull off in a small, quiet black box setting. Plays of such gravitas seem to require a house to match the weight they bear, lending balance to the atmosphere. This is not so with Eric Samuelsen’s “The Ice Front.” The piece, presented carefully by Plan-B Theatre at the Rose Wagner Black Box, was heavy, important, and done immaculately in a comfortable setting. Creating an environment that provided the small room a sense of weight, the play gave the audience the bond of knowing that everybody was in that room together.

What “The Ice Front” offers is a stunning look at a part of World War II that is rarely considered – the resistance many Norwegian civilians had to put up to Nazi occupation. The play offers insight into what it means to be an artist during one of the most difficult times for creativity, focusing on a group of actors and their stage manager, all of whom are trying to adapt to the new rules under which they are forced to practice their craft. Not only do they have to perform under Nazi rules, but they also have been tasked with performing an abominable Nazi play that casts Jews as despicable villains, and, when their assigned director refuses to participate, are left scrambling to decide between their craft, their honor, and their lives.

Directed by Jerry Rapier, the play goes several steps toward breaking down traditions, and has a stage manager onstage, played at Plan B by the powerful Stephanie Howell, who spends a significant amount of her time speaking directly to the audience, effectively eliminating any fourth wall, as well as directly giving light and sound cues. It helps bring the audience further into the story, investing them emotionally in the lives of the characters as they unfold and are truly transformed from mere characters into fully developed people onstage. These people have well-written, complex histories. They have secrets and surprises that, when revealed, drew audible gasps from some audience members.

One of the most stirring moments in the play happens when, just as the troupe decides they cannot bear to perform the Nazi-mandated, Jew-bashing script, Egil, the leader of the troupe, played at Plan B by Jay Perry, reveals his ancestry is Jewish enough to place him in danger. It is a great turning moment, as stirring for the audience as it is for the other characters. The revelation ratchets up the conflict, creating a sense of urgency within the cast members, who realize their friend, someone who had been safe and comfortable before, is neither now.

Anders, one of the most moving characters in the play, was carried by Robert Scott Smith, who did an immaculate job of playing a kind, caring, thoughtful character. Throughout the play, Anders is a known homosexual and when he changes his mind, deciding to resist Nazi pressure because of the loss of his lover, it is one of the most heartrending moments of the entire play. Smith’s commanding presence made Anders one of the most-respected characters in the room, offering him a grace and kindness that was deeply humane and refreshing during the war that was raging around the collection of actors.

The play spends a great deal of time in turmoil, going back and forth between morality and the desire to live freely, out of prison and the grasp of Nazi demands. It looks straight into the heart of political conflicts that ring true throughout decades of war and peace, and asks questions that may still be unanswerable. It does not end happily for everybody, but ends breathlessly, with the tentative kind of peace that is granted after great effort is made and many people have lost their lives. It left the room filled with answers, and with questions, leaving at least this audience member filled with deep introspection. In looking back at conflicts that happened over 70 years ago, “The Ice Front” seems to momentarily look to the future with questions left unanswered.

Categories: Theater

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