The Drama Club at New Paltz High School is mounting an exciting, original stage production this weekend that is unlike anything that it has ever presented before: a pastiche compiled from new interviews, old writings, period songs and pop culture showing the World War II era from nearly every imaginable perspective, titled Shades of War. And it almost didn’t happen, because the financially strapped New Paltz School District completely cut the traditional fall dramatic production from the club’s budget, leaving only enough funds to put on the spring musical.
But Drama Club advisor Nancy Owen is not a woman easily deterred, and she loves working with the high school kids enough to go ahead with the fall drama, even though she’s not getting paid for it this time (unless the efforts of a parent volunteer committee succeed in raising enough funds via car washes and the like to fill the gap). She got the idea for Shades of War a couple of years ago while taking a local memoir-writing class, when another member of the group, Denise Springer, read an account of her life under Nazi occupation as a 14-year-old girl in Vichy France. Owen enlisted a Drama Club member, Allison Albrecht, to record an interview with Springer. And this weekend, Albrecht, a senior, will be performing a first-person account of Springer’s story in Shades of War.
“Denise got a very good view of how the Nazis were, because her parents owned a hotel and had 200 to 300 Germans living there,” Albrecht reports. “She felt torn between compassion for these Nazis and hating them.” Denise and other French children would “follow the Germans at night, trip them and throw stones.” But the girl also saw how miserable the young German soldiers were, how much they missed their families; two hanged themselves in their hotel rooms rather than be sent to the Russian front. When she moved to this country in her 20s, Denise was disgusted by the way that Americans seemed to glorify and romanticize war without ever having lived with it in their own communities.
Springer’s ambivalent narrative inspired Owen to assemble an educational stage production that would throw light on all the nuances of World War II — not just patriotic puffery. Act One is mostly upbeat, interspersing excerpts from nostalgic letters between American soldiers and their families with Swing Era song-and-dance numbers as performed by acts like the Andrews Sisters. But in Act Two, jitterbug jive and Rosie the Riveter give way to the darker side of the war.
The next local World War II survivor whom Owen wanted the Drama Club students to interview was her husband’s aunt, Dorothy Maroon, who had served as an Army nurse right after high school. Unfortunately, Maroon had Alzheimer’s disease by that point, and her wartime experience had to be assembled from her diaries, photos and mementos. “It’s such an amazing story, but it deserves to be told. It’s horrific, but it’s priceless,” says junior Liz Corey, who undertook the research project and will personify Dorothy in Shades of War.
Assigned to the 131st Evacuation Unit, Dorothy was among the American nurses sent in to rescue survivors of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp upon its liberation by the Allies at the end of the war. “The conditions were horrible,” with “bodies stacked like firewood,” reports Corey. “Dorothy had albums filled with pictures. She really did hide behind her camera.”