Photo: Paul Kolnik
When R.C. Sherriff wrote Journey's End in 1928, he meant for it to be an honest, celebratory depiction of what he and his comrades went through, fighting for Britain in World War I. Regardless of how we much of an anti-war play it comes across as now (and it's impossible not to see the futility of war in this drama, set in an underground bunker over the course of four, terse 1918 days), the fact that Sherriff wrote the play with such open-minded wit makes it that much stronger as a stunning theatrical work. The simple truth of real, fleshed out characters--not the overdone proselytizing of The Vertical Hour or other "modern" pieces of propaganda--camaraderie does more to evoke emotions than intellectual discussions of such important matters.
Films like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO limited series, Band of Brothers, knew this and were the stronger for it, crafting silent scenes that spoke as much as the action. Journey's End, which is live and on a Broadway stage, can't do the same special effects, so instead the play focuses simply on the characters, with the war taking place just a few feet aboveground, an ominous presence brought to life by Gregory Clarke's spectacular sound effects. As for the bunker (designed by Jonathan Fensom), it's a dank, rat-infested mess, barely lit by candles (kudos to Jason Taylor's dim lighting), and the cramped quarters--wooden walls and poles pressing in from all sides--exacerbate the tension of the piece.
I've spent so much time establishing place (before even mentioning the excellent ensemble or the dashing director) because the world itself of this play is as much a character as anyone else, and because things like that too often go overlooked. But they're important to note; one of the reasons Journey's End is such a great play is that the pieces all work together--even the curtain call is gloriously rigged to continue the emotional toll of the show, and I'm glad that a director (David Grindley) finally had the balls to carry the reality of the theater past the threshold of the curtain. Within the show itself, he manages to carry more tension on a bare stage (the characters are all presumed to be fighting in the trenches) than many directors accomplish in their whole careers. One pivotal scene, filled with heartbreaking subtext, involves the fifteen minutes of preparation before what is essentially a suicide mission: the two officers deliberately keep switching the topic in order to clear their minds of their impending deaths (it's no surprise that another officer cracks) and their casual conversation about the English countryside is painfully oblique.
What I like most about the play's execution is that Sherriff's characters avoid the all-too-easy trap of stereotype. Though there are comic characters, like the rotund and mustached Trotter (John Ahlin), they are not just so. In Trotter's case, he is just a man coping with the constant pressure as best he can: "War is bad enough already, but war without pepper--it's bloody awful." In the case of our whiskey-addled protagonist, Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), it takes a bottle to keep the demons at bay, and his wizened, gentle second-in-command, Osborne (Boyd Gaines) to keep him sane (and to tuck him in at night). Our heroes are the characters like Raleigh (Stark Sands), a newly minted officer who is perfect for leading nighttime raids through mortar-ripped holes in the enemy lines on account of his naivety about suicide. In this case, Raleigh also doubles as a connection to Stanhope's former life, which bolsters the awful truth that men must reinvent themselves in war: in order to survive, they must kill who they once were.
Journey's End, whether Sherriff meant it or not, makes for a relevant revival (at last!) on the Broadway stage, and is a far tighter production than last year's Caine Mutiny Court-Martial (perhaps because the play enlists theater veterans rather than television plebes). It's gripping, and utterly immersing: to the usher who recommended I bring a handkerchief: you were right.
Sunday, February 25, 2007
Photo: Paul Kolnik