In Plan-B’s ‘The Ice Front,’ the political becomes personal for Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen

World premiere • The story of a group of actors who stage a rebellion at the Norwegian National Theatre at the height of World War II is based on a true story close to the playwright’s heart.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Daniel Beecher, from left, Stephanie Howell, Robert Scott Smith, Christy Summerhays, Jay Perry and Emilie Starr perform in Eric Samuelson's "The Ice Front," a new play (based on a real story) about a company of actors in Norway forced to perform a play under Nazi occupation.

The key word in talking about Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen’s play “The Ice Front,” making its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company this week, is “personal.”

The play tells the story of a group of actors who stage a rebellion at the Norwegian National Theatre at the height of World War II when the German occupation orders them to perform what Samuelsen describes as a “blatantly, horrendously anti-Semitic play.”

The play is based on a true story, and it’s one close to Samuelsen’s heart.

“I grew up with stories about the Norwegian Resistance [the Ice Front],” he says. “My dad told stories of how he would entertain people in fallout shelters. As a child, he would sing American folk songs in English because he loved cowboy movies, especially singing ones. That was the beginning of his career as an opera singer.

“I always wanted to do something with those stories.”

Samuelsen encountered the story about these unexpectedly heroic Norwegian actors when he was researching his doctoral dissertation on theater in Norway in 1990, but it incubated a long time before he figured out how to develop it into a play.

“I didn’t really know whose story it was,” he says. He knew it needed a narrator, but who should that be? His breakthrough came when he realized the narrator should be the stage manager, not one of the actors. “Stage managers are not celebrities; they’re more like the ordinary Norwegian people. … I imagined her as apolitical, patriotic in a nonreflective way, and fiercely protective of her actors,” he says.

She evolved into the character of Birgit and enables “The Ice Front” to become an interesting theatrical mirror image by calling cues as if this is an actual production while the actors act out the real-life story, as well as the parts they are playing onstage at the theater.

Director Jerry Rapier says he thinks this double image of actors is one of the most interesting aspects of “The Ice Front.”

“The way theater functions is such a mystery to so many people who love the theater,” he says. “How people arrive at the relationships they do onstage and how actors interact as people, not as characters — there seems to be endless fascination with and little knowledge of what that looks and feels like. … Eric has given us the gift of being able to show people what that is like.”

Jay Perry, who plays Egil, who is hiding the fact that he is Jewish, agrees: “The relationships are dynamic; they change and shift,” he says. “There are parts where we are angry and yelling at each other and then other parts where we’re holding each other, crying together. One thing this play really shows is how much of a family a cast becomes and how tight those bonds can be.”

Rapier also points out that we don’t usually think about artists having to wrestle with political choices. He describes “The Ice Front” as “a pulling back of the curtain under extraordinary circumstances in a situation no one ever wants to be in. We talk about stakes and choices in a play all the time, but there’s rarely a time when you consider an actor going onstage as (1) an act of political defiance, and (2) a life-and-death situation. And suddenly we have both of those in this play.”

Samuelsen calls his characters “unlikely patriots.”

Rapier, also Plan-B’s artistic director, was not sure the company could stage the play originally because of the size of the cast, even after Samuelsen cut the number of characters from 16 to nine.

Because Plan-B prides itself on paying actors a decent salary, Rapier and managing director Cheryl Ann Cluff didn’t know where the money to do the show was coming from, but they thought it was important to do the play because of the parallels to the current political climate in America.

So they “threw caution to the wind” and “trusted that the play itself, the moment in time and Eric’s specific connection to this specific play would make it possible, and it did,” Rapier says. He discovered the Venturous Theater Fund of the Tides Foundation, which helps small theater companies take a chance on a challenging play, and the funding came together quickly.

Once the production was scheduled, Samuelsen’s father, Roy, became actively involved. “It was in part my story, but it was also my father’s story,” Samuelsen says. Although his dad is not a writer, he turned out to be an insightful collaborator. “He was an opera singer, so he knows a lot about theatrical storytelling and how to make something work onstage,” Samuelsen says.

Sadly, Roy Samuelsen had a heart attack and died in September on his way to Utah to visit his son for the play opening. “I see the play really as an homage to him and his generation, that whole generation of Norwegians,” Samuelsen says. “He was a great artist and a wonderful father.”

The final personal piece in the mosaic that is “The Ice Front” is Samuelsen’s longtime relationship with Plan-B and the actors in this production.

“Sometimes I refer to this cast as the gathering of Eric’s muses,” Rapier says, laughing. Half of the actors have appeared in multiple Samuelsen plays, and he has even written roles for several.

Christy Summerhays, who plays Astrid, the surprisingly steely heroine, says, “I’ve always enjoyed working on his plays, but this is my favorite, and I think it is not a coincidence that it’s also his most personal piece.”

‘The Ice Front‘<br>Plan-B premieres Eric Samuelsen’s play about a group of actors who become unlikely heroes in the Norwegian Resistance movement during World War II.<br>When • Opens Thursday and plays Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Nov. 19; special preview performances Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. will benefit the Utah Film Center and NOVA Chamber Music Series, respectively <br>Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City<br>Tickets • $20, $10 for students; planbtheatre.org<br>Wait list • “The Ice Front” is sold out, but you can still see the show: A prepaid wait list begins one hour before showtime in the Rose Wagner box office. Patrons must be present to be added to the list. Check back 5 minutes before the show. Full refunds will be given to those not seated. There has never been a sold-out performance where at least two on the wait list haven’t gotten in.