Westport Country Playhouse, Westport
Westport Country Playhouse ends its summer season, not with a whimper, but a bang--in every sense of the word. “Journey’s End,” its final show, is a powerful anti-war piece. The bangs come from the bombardment of heavy guns heard off-stage. But the bangs also come from the emotional impact of the story.
Based on the personal war experiences of playwright R. C. Sherriff, this 1928 drama deals with the British/German hostilities of World War I. It is 1918, the fifth year of the Great War, and the scene unfolds in the British officers’ dugout, just behind the lines, as they await the big German offensive. While trench warfare may be passé, a kind of quaint artifact, the effects of battle on human beings is as current as today’s newspapers. “Journey’s End” continues to ring true in our own times.
The story itself concerns a young officer, just out of school, who finds himself assigned to a unit presided over by a captain who was his former school idol. The captain, once an idealist and a patriot himself, has become so devastated by the war that he survives only by drinking himself into stupors. The captain must assign the boy to a senseless, suicidal raid which the higher brass has deemed necessary. Thus Sherriff (no doubt from his own experience) underscores the insanity of war and the ineptness of its leaders.
There is every kind of character depicted here—the deceptive coward, the modest hero, the idealistic newcomer, the war-weary leader. Sherriff has an unerring skill for characterization, as he defines each man and his personal demons--and the skill to interweave their struggles into one absorbing plot set against the backdrop of war.
The production itself is strong, thanks to director Gregory Boyd and his fine all-male ensemble. In particular, Mark Shanahan’s Captain Stanhope is heart-breaking, as he subtly changes from intrepid leader to pitiful drunk, and Noble Shropshire, as the company cook, provides much-needed moments of comedy to this relentless tragedy.
Not that there are not some off-putting aspects to the production. Boyd must struggle against the theater’s broad stage and large house. The play is meant to have a claustrophobic setting and would work better, involving its audiences more easily, in a more intimate venue. These large quarters look too comfortable, too much like an English drawing room. And the off-stage booms ought to mount in intensity, steadily building tension, over the three acts. And finally the blasting of the dugout should totally demolish the quarters, rather than settle for the fall of two beams--a token gesture at best.
Nevertheless, this is a play that has much to say which is applicable today, and this strong Playhouse production says it very well indeed.
-- Irene Backalenick
August 22, 2005