The story is eerily familiar: Warfare without an exit strategy, the existential angst of soldiers as they await the next attack, the obliviousness and insensitivity of commanders-in-chief. No, we’re not talking Iraq, but rather dispatches from another front: R.C. Sherriff’s 1929 battlefield-life play “Journey’s End,” set in the British trenches at the height of WWI. But auds are likely to feel contemporary resonances as they leave Gregory Boyd’s finely calibrated, haunting production about the human price of military engagement.
David Grindley’s revival of the play captivated auds and critics when it opened in the West End last year, and Boyd’s production should do no less here — and perhaps interest others enough to give the show a life beyond its two-week run at the end of the Westport summer season.
The ensemble is near top-notch, the physical production is impressive, and the naturalistic staging is effectively nuanced. What once was seen as a period piece now is unmistakably a work of timeless worth.
As the British troops hunker down in the trenches awaiting a major German offensive in 1918, the crisp, dignified and efficient officers of the company deal with their own battles. Beneath their surface calm, composure and humor, other wars are raging.
“You think there’s no limit to what a man can bear,” one officer says, when the ravages of combat become too much. Sherriff takes the aud to the edge of that limit, but with a gentle, decent, even loving hand.
As the personal details are discreetly revealed, these stock characters with their “cheer-os,” “jolly goods” and “rathers,” take on a richer color and complexity. The cast makes the stiff upper lips seem not like a cliche but rather a vital coping mechanism to fend off fear, despair and madness.
Much of the play deals with the minutiae of everyday life at the front, where combatants are 100 yards from each other. A cook’s preoccupation with apricots and pineapples becomes a great source of discussion and — in the hands of Noble Shropshire as the deadpan chef with just a soupcon of attitude — welcome comedy.
A discussion of earthworms takes on metaphorical as well as biological meanings. A former schoolmaster, now second-in-command, finds solace and significance from his worn copy of “Alice in Wonderland” (underscoring the subtext that these good men have fallen down their own rabbit hole).
As that kindly schoolmaster-lieutenant, James Black gives the production its human center. Black’s brilliant perf is an understated study of an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstance.
Mark Shanahan offers the right balance, too, as he teeters near — but not over — the edge of collapse as Captain Stanhope, the troop’s charismatic leader, battling his own demons. Kieran Campion offers innocence, dignity and compassion as Raleigh, the new officer who hero-worships Stanhope and quickly learns the difference between the romance and realities of war.
Also lending strong support to their second lieutenant roles are Tommy Schrider as Hibbert, who is battling terror and losing, and Andrew Weems as the deceptively upbeat, resilient Trotter. Daniel Freedom Stewart and Trevor Vaughn do well in their smaller roles. However, George Taylor as the imperious colonel is far from commanding and dangerously tentative.
Hugh Landwehr’s set creates a claustrophobic world where dirt trickles down with each bomb blast, reminding us that only a few timbers separate a trench from a tomb. (The show’s haunting final tableau, which expands on that imagery, is a stunner.) Clifton Taylor beautifully demonstrates the preciousness of light, from the small glow of a single candle to the transformative power of a sunbeam. John Gromada’s sounds of battle envelop the theater, making the aud feel this is a shared wartime experience.