510th Fighter Squadron

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Ponder Anew - A WWII Warrior's Story

At the heart of all good theater is a great story. And "Ponder Anew: A WWII Warrior's Story" certainly fits that description — thanks to the considerable talents of esteemed artists (and husband-and-wife team) Robert Kiefer and Carol Ponder.

An engaging example of reader's theater, the play is based on the memoir of Ponder's father, Lt. Herschel D. Ponder, a fighter pilot who flew P-47 Thunderbolts in Europe. As part of the 510th Fighter Squadron of the 405th Fighter Group, Ponder provided close air support to troops at the front, often seeking out "targets of opportunity" behind enemy lines.

It's an action-packed tale, following Lt. Ponder from his boyhood home in Asheville, N.C., to training camps in Virginia and later, to being shot down over the Rhine River. Balancing humor with horror, Ponder's matter-of-fact recollections are intensely personal. And yet the tone is familiar to anyone whose life has been touched by war.

Fresh off his marvelous performance as Richard Nixon in Studio Tenn's recent production of "Frost/Nixon," Kiefer gives voice to Lt. Ponder's unforgettable experiences. He draws the audience in with animated style, capturing both the thrill of flying and the utter terror of combat. As Kiefer related one particularly harrowing mission at Friday's performance, I noticed an elderly gentleman in the front row, moving back and forth in his seat — as if dodging antiaircraft fire.

Meanwhile, Carol Ponder provides thoughtful and emotional context for "Ponder Anew." Taking her father's story from page to stage has clearly been a labor of love for the award-winning singer and teaching artist. Her earthy vocals shine on both traditional Appalachian folk songs and classics of the World War II era.

In one especially touching segment, Lt. Ponder recalls a dear friend — one of many lost in battle — who had a beautiful tenor voice. As Carol Ponder delivers a stirring rendition of "Danny Boy," Kiefer closes his eyes to the painful memory, mouthing the lyrics — creating a vivid portrait of grief and longing.

Kiefer also captures the nightmare of what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. And it's worth noting that these performances of "Ponder Anew" are free and open to the public, thanks to a unique partnership with Courage Beyond at Centerstone — a program that serves military Americans and their families who may be dealing with PTSD.

But "Ponder Anew" gives us more than Lt. Ponder the soldier. It also honors Herschel Ponder, the proud family man who took pleasure in simple joys and in the grandeur of his beloved North Carolina mountains. And in doing so, "Ponder Anew" also honors the great tradition of storytelling. Don't miss it.

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