Friday, December 5, 2003

Night of nights: A conversation with playwright Evelyn Jones

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Playwright Evelyn Jones, a former Boston Herald features writer, has lived in Kittery for about 20 years and was working on a novel until she started writing plays in 1996. The novel, she says, now "sits unlamented, gathering dust."

Her play Not on This Night centers on a farm girl, Jacqueline (Juliet Nelson), whose home is commandeered by a German soldier and then an American, on a Christmas Eve in World War II.

The Phoenix sat down at a South Portland keyboard, and Jones at hers in Kittery, to inquire about the play and its upcoming shows, December 21 and 28, at the Seacoast Repertory Theater in Portsmouth.

Phoenix: Is the play based on real incidents? If so, how did you first find out about them?

Jones: Though many people surmised Not on This Night was written in response to more current world conditions, it was maybe 40 years ago that I cut and saved a short article about a Christmas Eve during World War I when enemy soldiers came out of their trenches to sing carols and exchange food and trinkets.

I came across the clipping again in the mid-’90s when the "Christmas truce" was still unfamiliar to most people. I always knew I’d write about it, and by now had become fascinated with the playwriting genre. With the format in place, other things followed. I remember details arranging themselves for me like puzzle pieces. Frankly, how do you get the war into the viewer’s gut? Not the battlefield . . . no, use an intimate setting . . . a normally safe place, like . . . like a kitchen . . . a farmhouse kitchen. Ironic contrasts . . . The battlefield so close, death so close, yet a few chickens outside in the barn. Inside, vulnerable victims of war . . . I’ll make them young, a teenage girl, and she’s alone . . . yes, she’s in danger . . . soldiers sneaking up to her door . . . a German, and an American, enemies bringing the war inside her kitchen. But it will be joyous . . . tears are okay, but it will be heartwarming and make the audience laugh, too. The girl is taking over the story . . . she’s determined there will be no violence, not on this night.

At some point I decided to set it closer to the present. An incident in World War 2, though I’d have to figure how the truce story was tied in. I laid out imaginary troop movements, fearsome weather, a dense forest area . . . and a Christmas Eve battle.

During all this, I thought I’d have a lot of rewriting to be reasonably historically correct.

Anyway, lots of stuff kept happening to my characters and I kept typing, and finally I had a feedback reading in my living room with theater friends. I explained I didn’t want to do all the necessary research if it wasn’t working, but when the reading ended, everyone was sniffling and said of course I had to go ahead.

I spent months with stacks of WW2 history books, dreaming at night about the horrific diaries and photos but the eerie part was finding then — and more since — that almost every detail I’d dreamed up fit actual facts!

Q: What happened to the play after it was reworked?

A: I sent the play off to a few publishers, and some competitions in New York and Hollywood, and I got busy on other plays.

Almost a year later, I got word Not on This Night was a winner in New York City and would be performed in a one-act festival. Later, I heard it was one of the six winners in the Hollywood festival — and the following day I got a contract in the mail from Pioneer Publishing. Like winning a lottery.

I finally got to see the play performed at the Players’ Ring, then at Act One (Hampton) Summer Theater, and Phillips Exeter Academy. After the play won the Seacoast Spotlight on the Arts 2000 Best Play award, the Rogosins read the script and they’ve arranged for two performances at Seacoast Rep on December 21 and 28. I think it’s an ideal stage, and can’t wait to see it.

Q: Why do you think people have given so much acclaim to this play?

A: I think people feel deeply moved and uplifted which, to be honest, makes me very happy. Whenever I’ve gone to see the play I’ve felt a disassociation, until Jacqueline comes on that stage setting the table, singing "Voici Noel," and then I’m in it with the rest of the audience. I suspect that comes from this wow of a cast!

Q: Sometimes writers secretly hope that their writing will change just one life in some specific way. For you, and for this play, how would you like someone’s life to change?

A: I’ll just say that the World War 1 story intrigued me and started me thinking — no, it started me feeling — about war. It’s easy to talk war without experiencing how devastating a death is, beyond the moment and beyond the life taken. But I should mention that feelings about war, and defending one’s country, are so complicated it’s tricky to put labels on anyone.

Not On This Night
Written by Evelyn Jones. With Juliet Nelson, Chris Curtis, and Andy Fling. Performed by Dream on Productions, at Seacoast Repertory Theater, in Portsmouth, Dec. 21 and 28, at 8 p.m. Call (603) 433-4472.

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