SCRANTON — The way it started out, playwright and director Lou Bisignani, of Scranton, was going to set his new play entirely in Paris in 1940.
With German soldiers occupying the country and the French Resistance struggling to thwart them, there would be plenty of dramatic material, he said. Add to the mix torch singer Edith Piaf, who sang to members of both groups, and the drama only heightens.
“I happen to be a fan of Edith Piaf,” said Bisignani, whose play, “Paris/Stalingrad,” opens July 20 with a cast from Actors Circle at the Providence Playhouse in Scranton. “The woman who plays her (Leba Lanton) does a very good job of lip syncing. She’s been studying hand gestures from movies.”
“There’s some truth and some theatrical elements here,” Bisignani said, explaining he’s set the first part of his play in a Paris cabaret, Café de Marque, where “Edith Piaf lives upstairs and entertains downstairs. In the basement there’s a small group of Resistance people. Some of them don’t like each other; some can’t stand each other … but no one would turn anybody in.”
In the years after World War II, the singer has become a controversial figure, with some people believing she collaborated with or was sympathetic to the Nazis, and some considering her a French patriot who helped the Resistance.
Bisignani’s version portrays the singer as a celebrity who somewhat reluctantly agrees to help the Resistance by visiting French prisoners of war, allegedly to boost their morale but really to pose for photographs with them. The photographs will later be doctored, with Piaf’s image removed and the prisoners’ images used for forged documents.
In his research for the play, Bisignani said, he learned it wasn’t too difficult for French prisoners of war to escape from forced-labor camps but, after they did, they could easily be stopped and sent back because they didn’t have proper papers. This Resistance effort, in which Piaf was a real-life participant, helped them in that regard.
To add spice to the plot, Bisignani said, “I put in there that Edith had an affair with one of the German soldiers (who visited the cabaret.) She liked men.”
That brings us to the second part of the play, when Bisignani has taken that same German soldier — “a nice guy,” he calls him — to Stalingrad, Russia, where the soldier is wounded and “stumbles into a bombed-out basement and discovers a woman whose husband has been killed.”
“The Germans hate the Russians; the Russians hate the Germans,” Bisignani said. “But this demonstrates a certain core of humanity. She’s a nurse and even though she hates him, she helps him. She can’t just let him die.”
That last part was going to be a separate play, until Bisignani realized he could link the two tales together.
“I tacked it onto the play like a little coda,” he said. “I know that’s a musical term but I’m using it. We show what happens to people.”
“Paris/Stalingrad” explores the courage and fear, cruelty and compassion that the stresses of war can bring out, and the play also gives Bisignani a chance to share with audiences the music of Edith Piaf.
“She was a wonderful singer,” he said, adding the play includes her signature song, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” which translates to “No, I Regret Nothing.”