The great bore

Belaboring obvious truths about war at Journey's End

If British writer Robert Cedric Sherriff became best known as the co-screenwriter for films like Goodbye Mr. Chips and The Invisible Man, that's only because his most famous play, Journey's End, suffers from the same historical neglect as its subject. Plano Repertory Theatre currently offers this drama about life in the trenches of World War I, and as the astute program notes by dramaturge Jeff Stover and James Paul Lemons declare, the so-called "European War of 1914-1918" has "become the forgotten war of American history." The United States was not drawn in with the force of the popular anti-fascism moral mandate that has made World War II ripe for minute re-examination in almost every decade since. And so Sherriff's script (and the novel into which it was later expanded), inspired by his own life-threatening WWI injury at Espy, is referenced more than it's truly pondered, studied more than it's staged.

Plano Repertory Theatre and actor-director Terry Martin, who has been named artistic director of Addison's WaterTower Theatre, are attempting to remedy this by staging Journey's End for the company's "Season of the Century," in which all the selections highlight some historical benchmark of the 20th century. It's entirely possible that Journey's End is the archetypal World War I play, but that's a little bit like saying Kalinoski's Beast on the Moon is the final stage statement on the Turkish genocidal war against Armenians, which happened at roughly the same time (1915). The question is: What choice do we have when turning to the stage for this important event? Journey's End, which after having been edited for the PRT production still clocks in at almost three hours, seems fairly dated in its sedate, surface examination of two very familiar themes: Waiting for war is as debilitating as war itself, and war corrupts youth. The major dramatic fulcrum in this show is how a young soldier's former idol in military school has become, as that soldier's captain inside the British trenches, an alcoholic hothead. This forces us to ask ourselves: Is it contemporary cynicism about hero worship that has made this script seem slight and anemic, or has the playwright not dug into the psyches of his characters deeply enough, turning up truths that feel more self-evident than shocking or even revealing?

Maybe we should blame it partly on set designer Bryan Wofford, who whets our appetite for battlefield anomie with his marvelously detailed, grimy bunker of a hiding place. This set, with its thin ribbon of sky overhead that turns dark as night, pale as dawn, and blood-red as the hail of exploding shells, does more just sitting there than most of the actors onstage are allowed to do, strolling from one end to the other in agitated boredom. Dewy-eyed Lt. Raleigh (Nathan Williamson) has arrived as the newest officer in a company that includes introspective Lt. Osborne (Mark Stoddard), cool-as-a-cucumber Lt. Trotter (Brian Gonzalez), and Capt. Stanhope (John Crawford). Stanhope was Raleigh's classroom hero, who drinks whiskey like mother's milk and sublimates his own grim terror at three years of ceaseless frontline duty into a series of tiny eruptions at other soldiers that undermine what was once a stone-solid moral foundation.

Nathan Williamson and Mark Stoddard are British officers struggling in the French trenches of World War I in R.C. Sherriff's decades-old drama.
Nathan Williamson and Mark Stoddard are British officers struggling in the French trenches of World War I in R.C. Sherriff's decades-old drama.

In 1928, when Journey's End was first staged, it probably seemed quite morally complex, disquieting, and piercing in its portrayal of the central figure Stanhope, who spends the play slowly cracking under the strain of maintaining order and obedience -- sometimes quite cruelly -- around him. But to this contemporary viewer, the playwright spends a very long time delaying a couple of inevitabilities that become apparent to us in the first half-hour. As for the PRT production, all I can say is that director Martin and his cast don't wallow in the tedium, but they haven't exactly found a way around it, either. It's nice to see that Martin can invoke the same crisp consistency as a director in the performances of others that he does on his own as an actor. (Although the British accents, as expected, waver from role to role; everyone suffers for the excellence of Brian Gonzalez as Trotter.) But in Journey's End, this amounts to training spirited young actors to strike the same bell note sequentially for 180 minutes. In the end, it's this, more so than the shells that fall with greater frequency throughout the show, that accounts for the ringing in our ears.

 
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