In the opening scene of Liberation Days, the ever-optimistic Canadian Captain Miles Cavendish (Geoff Burns) just wants to know if “everyone is okay.” Village elder Aaltje de Bruijn (Laurie Jarvis) responds with a tirade entirely in Dutch, its meaning unmistakable: under German occupation people in the Netherlands saw their loved ones shot, witnessed unspeakable things, starved, and made terrible choices to survive. Her daughter Emma (Lindsay Clague) translates: “Yes, we’re all right.”
It’s a comic moment in the script penned by Calgary playwright David van Belle that sets the stage for the strange bedfellows (figuratively and literally) the liberating Canadian soldiers and Dutch townspeople became at the end of World War II. And while the premise of cross-cultural wartime romance and the return of a missing fiancé is predictable, it’s honest: these things happened. In the hands of Eli Geddis, who plays the fresh-faced Canadian Private Alex King, and Michael Calladine, who plays returning lover Jan van Egmond, the story is well-wrought.
In this play nearly everyone is a tragic character — how could anyone not be under the circumstance of war? — yet thanks to a good script and the artful direction of Pat Henman, the wrenching moments are countered with just enough levity to remind us that, as written in a note found with the gramophone and classical records left by a departing Nazi officer, “there is beauty still.”
Particularly tragic are the characters of Marijke (Jordana Champagne), a villager shorn and tarred for her romance with a German soldier, and the war-damaged Jan, who describes Berlin under Russian occupation and the systematic rape of a family of women in which he partook. For his father, Reformed Dutch Church dominee Herman van Egmond (Michael Graham), his son’s confession is devastating.
The characters and their situations remind us that war changes us irrevocably. In the hands of the Nelson all-star cast, the twists and turns of the human heart are well illustrated in what is clearly an ambitious play. Not the least of this is the insertion of Dutch dialogue, which provides realism while being contextually understandable. Kudos to Clague, Calladine, Champagne and Jarvis for pulling this off with the help of local Dutch language consultants.
The Capitol Theatre and executive director Stephanie Fischer must be applauded for taking on this production, telling an important story while celebrating local talent. Inspired set design by Adriana Bogaard, lighting by Dave Ingraham, and the animated backdrop of World War II images designed by Bryan Webb created the canvas for solid direction and performances. It takes many hands to pull off a play such as this, and these things are never so apparent as in a local production, where the names on the program are as familiar as the friends and neighbours in the audience.
While the Nelson run of Liberation Days has finished, its story continues. A crew of students under the guidance of filmmaker Amy Bohigian documented the play as part of a film, which, with supporting interviews, hopes to find its way into the high school curriculum.