‘The Ice Front’ tackles thorny questions about art’s responsibility to speak out in divisive political times

Review • Eric Samuelsen’s new play at Plan-B Theatre Company reinforces connections between then and now.

“I will put my country before my career and my fellow human beings over my art. This time I say no,” Peter announces defiantly to his fellow actors in a pivotal moment in “The Ice Front,” making its world premiere at Plan-B Theatre Company.

Eric Samuelsen’s profound and powerful play is set at the height of World War II in Nazi-occupied Norway, where the acting company at the National Theatre is desperately trying to decide how to resolve an impending crisis of conscience. The Nazis understand the importance of keeping the theater operating for propaganda purposes, so the company has been staging safe classics; suddenly the actors are asked to perform a new play, “The Last Scream,” which Peter (Daniel Beecher) describes as “anti-Jewish excrement.”

What should they do? As Anders (Robert Scott Smith) points out, “We’re safe. We’re pampered, well paid, well fed.” To defy the Nazi establishment risks everything, even their lives. “If I can be a patriot, then fine. But I’m not much interested in becoming a martyr,” concludes Anders , voicing the concerns of opposing company members.

What is the responsibility of an artist in a divisive political climate? That’s just one of the questions Samuelsen’s multilayered play asks, one that feels especially relevant in 2017 America.

The dramatic way the company answers that question gives “The Ice Front” the tension of a thriller, but its heart is the way addressing that problem creates an indivisible bond among the company members, led by their stalwart stage manager, Birgit (Stephanie Howell), who acts as the play’s narrator. Birgit describes herself as “the staff sergeant of the theater world. … I’m invisible. I’m essential.” Her presence turns “The Ice Front” into an intriguing theatrical mirror. She calls sound and light cues for the production we are watching that tells the true story of a group of actors whom we also see performing scenes from plays.

(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 play’s story is true, but Samuelsen created the characters, a vivid cross-section of Norwegian theatrical society. Besides Birgit; Peter, the company’s spokesperson and conscience; and Anders, who is gay and fears being discovered; the company consists of the regal, self-possessed Astrid (Christy Summerhays), always aware of her “star power”; the dedicated, impassioned Egil (Jay Perry), anxious to hide the fact that he’s Jewish; emotional, impressionable ingénue Bente (Emilie Starr); and patriotic, outspoken Mette (Ariana Broumas Farber), Birgit’s assistant.

The other two characters are the authoritative, pro-Nazi theater manager, Morten (Mark Fossen), and Heinrich (Topher Rasmussen), a young German soldier obsessed with keeping the actors under control. The performances are sharply etched individually and perfectly in sync with each other, and Jerry Rapier’s dynamic direction constantly moves the actors into different configurations to energize the narration and create fluid scene transitions.

Keven Myhre’s backstage set with its stark scenery flats, ghost light and miscellaneous furniture looks as if it’s ready for a rehearsal, and David Rees’ sharply defined area lighting pinpoints the flow of the action. K.L. Alberts’ sophisticated period costumes feature lovely touches like Anders’ matching bowtie and pocket handkerchief, and Birgit tellingly wears trousers while the other ladies don skirts. Cheryl Cluff’s encyclopedic sound design tells you everything you need to know about what’s happening in the outside world.

At one point, Bente says that “the first level of madness [is] hating people for no reason.” If the amount of divisive rhetoric continues to rise in this country and throughout the world, “The Ice Front” may look less and less like something that occurred in a distant place and time. What choices can we make now to keep that from happening?

The Ice Front<br>Plan-B gives Eric Samuelsen’s provocative new play a powerful production full of sharply etched performances.<br>When • Reviewed on Nov. 9; Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 through Nov. 19.<br>Where • Studio Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. Broadway, Salt Lake City.<br>Tickets • $20, $10 for students. Call 355-ARTS or visit www.arttix.org for tickets and www.planbtheatre.org for more information.<br>Running time • Two hours and 15 minutes (including an intermission)<br>Wait list • “The Ice Front” is sold out, but you can still see the show. A prepaid wait list begins one hour before show time in the Rose Wagner box office. Patrons must be present to be added to the list. Check back five minutes before the show. Full refunds will be given to those not seated for the performance. There has never been a sold-out performance where at least two on the wait list haven’t gotten in.