Column: A once-secret story of humanity in the face of war comes to life on stage

Singing, prancing and chasing an errant cat is an odd way to remember an American tragedy that happened just prior to the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944. But somehow the imported play “946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” manages to tell a long-secret, 72-year-old tale with verve, music, humor and some pathos.

Originally produced by Kneehigh and Birmingham Repertory Theatre in England, the production premiered in the U.S. recently at the Berkeley Repertory Theater, before it heads to Los Angeles and New York. The play unlocks a chapter in World War II that casts an ambiguous look at war and its consequences — a chapter full of life and intrigue.

In the spring of 1944, American troops set up camp in the west of England, along the Channel Coast, with a landscape similar to the beaches of Normandy where the invasion was imminent. Under the command of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, the troops began a rehearsal for D-Day, called Exercise Tiger: boarding landing craft, loading tanks and putting out to sea. The exercise was to be as realistic as possible, with live ammunition, and coordination among the various elements.

But one of the destroyers slated to guard the rehearsal was in for repairs, and patrolling German torpedo boats caught sight of the unprotected American fleet in the channel; they attacked. Meanwhile, the American communication system had broken down and the soldiers were unable to stop the Nazis. When it was over, 946 American servicemen had lost their lives, drowned or blown up. (Hence the 946 of the play’s title.) The U.S. hushed up the incident for 40 years, until one of the tanks was discovered on the Channel floor.

The story came to light in the 1980s, and the town where Exercise Tiger was centered, Slapton Sands in South Devon, erected a granite memorial on the beach that says the exercise resulted “in the saving of many hundreds of lives”. It does not mention the American causalities.

But that is only part of the story of the play. “The amazing story” mostly is the tale of the people in Slapton Sands and how they adapt to the war and to the orders to evacuate their town so Exercise Tiger can take place. In an almost English-music-hall atmosphere, the inhabitants welcome black American soldiers, who hadn’t been welcomed at home and served in segregated Army units. Using audacious and clever theatrical tricks, Birmingham Rep turns what could have been an historical drama into a poignant romp.

And then there’s the story of the cat. Adolphus Tips, who belongs to a 12-year-old English girl and is constantly being lost, makes a plot point the show could do without. But the other characters — and the band that accompanies them — provide an ironic counterpoint to the war and to the loss of life. A young boy from Europe, whose father was killed, comes to the town, as does a French teacher whose husband died in the war. They quickly become part of the town’s sturdy fabric.

Despite the real and the impending tragedy, the inhabitants of Slapton Sands carry on, and we watch bemused and entertained as they debate, with British humor, the need to move away from the town. Their reactions to the Americans (welcoming and bemused) and to their own officious leaders like Lord Something-Or-Other (cynical) cast a warm light on the townspeople and on the English in general.

At a time when the Islamic State militant group is murdering innocent civilians and Syria’s military is attacking its own people, the ability to see war as more than simply death and starvation is a welcome twist.

It’s still a tragedy, of course – 946 American lives lost is evidence of that – but the lens that authors Michael Morpurgo and Emma Rice employ to examine that tragedy takes some of the edge off the horror, and replaces it with a tale of the humanity of those most affected.

“946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips” runs through Jan. 15, 2017, at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California. Then it moves to the Wallis Annenberg Center in Los Angeles from Feb. 9 to March 5, and to St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York from March 16 to April 9.

Support PBS NewsHour: