There are two moments in director David Grindley's thoroughly gripping production of British playwright R.C. Sherriff's 1928 World War I drama Journey's End that rank among the most horrifically dramatic slices of theatre Broadway has seen in years. Both take place with no actors on stage. Through the impact of Gregory Clarke's sound design, Jason Taylor's lighting and the excellent work of an outstanding ensemble cast, the audience is fed enough insight into the impossible situation ahead, and the emotional state of those involved, to clearly picture in their own minds the two climatic moments of the evening. It's surely a bit different in each individual imagination, but with every explosion, shot and flash of light we somehow sense exactly what's happening.
Inspired by the author's own wartime experiences, the play is set in a cramped dugout in the British trenches, 50 yards away from the front lines near St. Quentin, France, days before The Spring Offensive, a pivotal battle where outnumbered British troops were attacked by Germans. Jonathan Fensom's appropriately dreary, claustrophobic set and Tyler's dim lighting guide you into focusing on Sherriff's words.
Journey's End seems strangely, and refreshingly, non-opinionated for a play about dutiful soldiers preparing for an upcoming conflict where they know there's little chance for survival. There are no great patriotic speeches, nor are there bitter denouncements of the follies of war. Sherriff has written an intimate drama remembering those who simply accept their fate, whatever it may be, in service of their country. He was surprised to find people interpreting it as an anti-war piece, but the even-handed humanity of Grindley's production allows you to interpret it as you wish.
"Think of it all as romantic. It helps," says Lieutenant Osborne (Boyd Gaines), the fatherly officer who is second in command to Captain Stanhope (Hugh Dancy), the 21-year-old wonder who shot to the top quickly and has taken to drinking as a way of dealing with his three nerve-wracking years in the trenches, a combination of boredom and insanity. ("When anything happens it happens quickly. Then we all start waiting again.")
The newly assigned 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Stark Sands), only 18, is an old school chum of Stanhope and brother to the girl back home he was courting. His presence makes Stanhope fear that unfavorable word of his wartime behavior may reach home. Dancy is extremely effective as the neophyte leader desperately trying to hide his nerves while bucking up the courage of his men, as is Sands when he too must learn realities of war very quickly.
The most interesting detail of the play is how outwardly unemotional the experienced soldiers are about their service. There is no hatred of the enemy expressed and in a quick moment involving a German soldier (Kieran Campion) we see the feeling of respect that they are simply doing their duty is mutual. When Osborne is handed an assignment to be part of a raid across the lines, a task that he knows will most likely result in his death, he refers to the business as nothing more than "a damn nuisance." Raleigh, who is itching to see some action, is also assigned, and in the play's most respectfully tear jerking scene, we see Osborne gently conversing with the excited lad about the pleasures of home life, wanting to fill what may be his last minutes on earth with pleasant thoughts. Gaines, a familiar Broadway face who has won three Tony Awards for much lighter fare, is barely recognizable here in a beautifully wise and subtle performance.
Jefferson Mays provides light comic relief as the earnest cook trying to create decent meals under impossible conditions, John Ahlin brings a fine brashness to his role as a dark-humored working class bloke who has risen to 2nd Lieutenant and Justin Blanchard is legitimately sympathetic as a 2nd Lieutenant trying to fake his way into getting sick leave on the eve of battle.
Journey's End is the type of play that, unfortunately, is a real financial risk in today's Broadway, although such excellence in playwriting, performance and presentation should be standard fare.
Photos by Paul Kolnik: Top: Hugh Dancy
Center: Boyd Gaines and Stark Sands
Bottom: John Ahlin and Jefferson Mays