New York City Theater
In a dugout next to frontline trenches in World War I France, the officers of British “C” Company battle fear with a mixture of stoicism and gallows humor. “We are waiting for something,” says one of them. What keeps them going is not only their desire to return home intact but their understated caring for one another.
This is R. C. Sherriff’s “Journey’s End,” a recent London hit with a mostly different cast. Sherriff meant his sizzling, frightening and terribly moving 1928 play not as an anti-war tract but a celebration of heroism and comradeship. Yet the parallels with today are impossible to ignore.
Between bombardments, there is food and talk of gardens amidst an uncanny quiet. But there’s also an unsettling feeling that “It all seems rather silly,” that they’re caught in an Alice in Wonderland time-warp where “nothing matters” and the Germans are “quite decent” enemies.
The troops are led by Capt. Stanhope, a respected officer who relies on huge quantities of alcohol to ward off the doubts and terrors of constant artillery bombardments and the threat of poison gas. His second-in-command is the avuncular Lt. Osborne, loyal to the core.
When wet-behind-the-ears 2nd Lt. Raleigh arrives, the play’s humanity shifts into high gear. Raleigh’s hero worship of Stanhope (they went to school together) is threatened by reality. Emotions held in check erupt and the essential madness of trying to kill an unknown and unseen enemy takes its mental and physical toll.
The cast, like the play, is stunning. As Stanhope, rising British star Hugh Dancy projects a warmth as cozy yet dangerous as the candles that light the dugout. He is a furious leader one moment, a tender, lonely child the next. Jefferson Mays brings needed comic relief to the unflappable cook, while other excellent turns are given by Boyd Gaines, Stark Sands and John Ahlin.
As directed by David Grindley, this is epic theater. The explosive ending that rocks the playhouse is followed immediately by a coup that left some audience members so shaken they didn’t move even after the lights went up.
David A. Rosenberg
March 11, 2007