nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 1, 2007
Journey's End—a play written by a little-known British author named R.C. Sherriff some 80 years ago, based on his own experiences in World War I—is the most stirring play on Broadway right now. It feels particularly pertinent at this particular moment, when an unpopular and wasteful war is being waged by our government; but don't underestimate the insights this remarkable play has to offer. Journey's End takes place during a war, but it's really about the value of human life; the sanctity of it. A dozen soldiers are introduced to us in the course of this play, and some die before it's over; and to the great credit of Sherriff and the artists interpreting his work for us, it matters when they do. It means something. We mourn their loss.
The story is straightforward. It's March 1918, and we're in a trench in northeastern France, about 50 miles from the Belgian border. Act One takes place on Monday evening, as talk of an imminent attack by the Germans—who are just 75 yards away, in a trench of their own—starts to circulate through the camp. On Tuesday (Act Two), it's determined that the attack will likely come on Thursday, and in the interim the Brigadier wants some of his men to run a dangerous raid onto the German side, with the objective of capturing at least one of the enemy, from whom it is hoped some useful intelligence can be obtained.
On Wednesday (Act Three), the raid—a suicide mission, it's generally agreed—is staged. At the play's end, the battle commences.
Journey's End introduces us to a group of officers commanding the company in this trench. In charge is Captain Stanhope, 21, an extraordinarily tenacious young man who has earned the respect of everyone around him despite the fact that he's turned, in the past year, into a serious and mean drunk. The alcohol gets him through the boredom and the fearsomeness. His right hand is the much older Lieutenant Osborne, a former schoolmaster whose maturity, calmness, and compassion perfectly compliment Stanhope's strengths and weaknesses. The other officers are Trotter, a fine and hearty soldier with a big appetite; Hibbert, who claims to be suffering from neuralgia and is working hard on being sent to hospital; and a newcomer, 18-year-old Raleigh (just arriving as the play begins), an old chum of Stanhope's. Raleigh's presence sets off some short-term difficulties, but these are dwarfed when Stanhope's superior informs him of the raid and appoints Raleigh and Osborne to lead it.
The action all plays out in the dugout where the officers sleep and eat their meals (prepared by the caustic, pragmatic cook, Private Mason). As rendered by set designer Jonathan Fensom and lighting designer Jason Taylor, it's a dark, claustrophobic place; Osborne, Trotter, and Mason's stiff-upper-lip resilience is at once nearly unfathomable under the circumstances and clearly, valiantly necessary. Hibbert's cowardice, Raleigh's callow excitement, and especially Stanhope's unrelieved melancholy are easier to understand. Sherriff conveys, powerfully, what it must have been like to exist and survive in the trenches.
Director David Grindley and an almost perfect cast provide the beating human hearts to fill out this somber story. The anchor of the play is Boyd Gaines, giving the performance of his career as Osborne; there's a scene at the top of Act III where he and Lt. Raleigh are making final preparations for the raid in which Gaines shows us how much the simplest stuff in life can mean—an extraordinary moving moment. Hugh Dancy is Stanhope, the protagonist; he is convincingly 21, which turns out to be enormously valuable: why does it make sense to anybody to squander the best and brightest to the game of warfare?
Steadfast support is offered by Jefferson Mays as Mason and John Ahlin as Trotter, both of whom inhabit their roles with naturalness and compassion. Stark Sands makes Raleigh even more immature than Dancy's Stanhope—no small achievement—and makes him likeable and sympathetic, as well. Richard Poe finds a bit of ambiguity in Stanhope's commanding officer, which is a wise choice. Justin Blanchard, as Hibbert, is the one weak link in the ensemble, failing to mine the complexity and humanity of his character, who is very much a counterpoint to Stanhope. Nick Berg Barnes, John Behlmann, Kieran Campion, and John Curless round out the cast effectively.
Gregory Clarke's sound design is loud, first and foremost. War is hell.
I have a couple of quibbles with this production. First—as so often happens these days—the carefully planned three-act structure has not been honored, with a single intermission coming halfway through Act II instead. This hurts the play in two ways: the natural breaks and climaxes are stripped away, and the second "act" is now much longer and more arduous than it needs to be.
Second, I was disappointed with the solemn final tableau, in which all of the characters are seen standing silently in front of a wall listing the names of (presumably) soldiers killed in war. The effect of this is to turn Journey's End into an anti-war play, when in fact it is only and entirely pro-humanity. Sherriff never argues whether World War I (or any other conflict) is justified or not; his thesis is only that every life is precious, and none should ever be sacrificed or stolen untimely. If the journey of men like Stanhope has to end as it does here, at the bottom of a bottle at the bottom of a trench, then something incalculable has been lost to us.