Honoring those that fought: Southland one-act play pays tribute to veterans
Published 6:01 am Monday, December 12, 2016
Dressed in drab coats and scarves, the small children of the small French village gather around Father Christmas, anxiously watching as he dug deep into his sack to find gifts for them — children who were thin, who were hungry, who were tired of war as the Christmas of 1944 approached.
And, they were fearful that the Germans soldiers, who had left their occupation of France earlier that year, would return to their village.
How their Christmas was brightened by American soldiers following the long siege of occupation is the story behind “The Bells of Charlemont,” a one-act play produced by Southland High School at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22 in the school auditorium.
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“When I read the story, I thought, ‘What an amazing play,’ “ said director Madlain Vander. “I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ I was so moved.”
So impressed was she by the play she contacted the school’s music department to see if they would like to join in a special Christmas presentation of the play that would also serve as an event to pay tribute to the community’s active military and veterans.
“It all came together; and it is going to be wonderful,” said Vander.
The story is based on true World War II account that focuses on a soldier, John, and his experiences starting on Christmas Eve, 1944, in a burned out village in France. He and fellow soldiers are asked if they will help bring Christmas back to the village. Before the men can complete their mission, however, they are given orders to join the forces in the Battle of the Bulge. How they resolve their emotional conflict is at the heart of the story’s spirit.
There are 125 students and community members who take up roles in the play, or are part of the band or choir. The public is welcomed and there is no charge. The number is far greater than what is allowed in the annual One-Act Play competition, where the students will perform the play in January.
However, for this special showing, Vander wanted to bring as many into the production as she could.
As an additional project, students and staff began collecting photographs of military members that will be part of a slideshow shown just prior to the play’s beginning. The choir and band will also perform selections of carols and patriotic pieces. The photographs have also been made into posters that line the walls of the school.
Many of the veterans, said Vander, are related to the students involved in the production. The band is under the direction of Amalie Niethammer and the choir, under the direction of Jenna Steinkamp.
Lizzy Wolterman, 18, a veteran of many Southland productions, has found her role as Laura, the widow of the town’s mayor, particularly poignant.
“I am not sure why this is so emotional for me,” she said. “I never knew much about the war, or what these people were going through. I kept thinking to myself during our scenes, ‘What would they be thinking?’ I would not even have a line, but that’s what I was thinking. I felt like crying sometimes. I’ve never been this connected to a show.”
Students in the production were prepped before rehearsals by watching three war movies, including the new movie, “Hacksaw Ridge.” Understanding what it means to be a soldier faced with devastating choices was an eye-opener.
Eighteen-year-old Peter Torkelson, who plays John, said the production was unlike any in which he has been involved.
“I feel like you have to not think of us as actors, but as people telling other people what the war was like,” he said.
Vander has high hopes for the production, and the play contest in January.
“It is a beautiful play, and tells a beautiful story in 35 minutes,” she said. “We hope everyone comes to see this.”
In addition to Torkelson and Wolterman, other actors are: Kappa, Will Douty; Sgt. George, Tyler Russell; Chooey, Mason Heimer; Milo, Wyatt Pederson; Mrs. Rousseau, Aleighcia Giles Peterson; and soldier, Matt Mueller. French villagers are Hannah Bergene, Megan Heimer, Cassandra Allegre, Hallie Bergene, Alizha Kappers, Mariah Kiefer, Alexis Smith; JoEllen Rice; and Vanessa, Anna, Ava and Ethan Payne; and Kendahl and Lexi Lewis.
The crew includes Hannah Mueller, Heidi Unverzagt, Gabby Smith, Rachel Meany and Leighsa Peterson. Other technical support coming from John Deyo, Lukas Howard, Amanda Ruskin, Ben Reburn and Rob Tieffenbacher.