“When the War is Done” is sobering success

Kristi Ruff

The Lawrence musical theater department’s performance of “When the War is Done” this weekend was fantastic. The show was a moving work centered on a character named Louise, played by Katie Hawkinson.
Louise is an 18-year-old orphan who was raised by her older brother, Fanfan, after their parents died. Fanfan, played by Brian Acker, is very overprotective, and Louise feels trapped by stereotypical female expectations. She wants adventure and a taste of life outside her small hometown of Saint Dizier.
The show takes place in France in late 1942, and this setting provides the perfect opportunity for Louise to find that adventure: The Nazis have invaded France and the French resistance is working overtime to defeat them and sabotage their efforts to transport weaponry.
Luckily enough, the weapons that the Germans need are transported right through Saint Dizier by train, and Louise just happens to work for the railroad as a file clerk. The ever-persuasive Nora, played by Emily Shankman, convinces Fanfan to allow Louise to help the resistance, just once.
Louise gets the chance to escape Saint Dizier and travels to Paris for a day, where she meets and falls in love with a handsome young man named Etienne, played by Mike Axtell. From there, the story moves forward through several interesting plot twists, side stories and some brief moments of humor.
As the resistance begins to rely more and more on Louise’s information, the story becomes more complicated as relationships are strained, friendships tested and loyalties examined. The story culminates in chaos and betrayal – love lost, families broken.
The individual focus of the play on the effects of the war on a microcosm of specific characters perfectly foils the disarray and pain experienced not only by the nation of France, but also by the world at large. The play shows the audience these events and people through a focused microscope that, when zoomed out, reflects upon the bigger picture, just as a fractal’s smaller parts are mirror images of the whole. Contributing to the themes of the play is the show’s music, which also provides a means through which to express the emotion of the show.
The actors in the show did a fine job portraying these events; the pain and suffering experienced by the small town was evident in their performance. While I was not always completely convinced by some of the intended emotional expressions, on the whole the overall gravity of the situation was precisely conveyed.
Though most of the acting was wonderful, I feel compelled to especially praise Cara Wantland’s portrayal of Nini, Emily Shankman’s depiction of the traitorous Nora, and Mike Axtell’s interpretation of Etienne. For me, these characters evoke the greatest emotional response not only due to their written parts, but because these actors were so deeply entrenched in their personas.
Wantland’s depiction of Nini’s embarrassment of her son and nostalgia for a previous life and lost opportunities was chillingly accurate. Emily Shankman illustrated Nora’s guilt over her betrayal while simultaneously allowing her fear and pain to emanate, thus wrapping the audience in her situation and forcing the audience members to wonder what they would do given a similar test. Last but not least, Etienne’s longing for acceptance by his mother, his love for Louise and his utter will to fight for the right thing were so righteously delivered that I constantly found myself wondering how one person could be so strong, given circumstances such as his.
These performances, in addition to those of the rest of the cast, provided a musically sound foundation for the emotive force of the show.
The performance was quite sobering – it forced the audience to realize the pain of the war, question reactions to it and brood over the availability of that resource we Americans so flippantly take for granted: freedom.