The latest offering to both Huntington and Broadway in Boston subscribers is the Huntington's production of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, presented in collaboration with Clear Channel Entertainment (Broadway in Boston's parent organization) at the Wilbur theatre, now through May 5, 2002.
Six of the original cast members, including Scott Wolf (Party of Five) and Justin Theroux (Mulholland Drive), are still on board from the production director Nicholas Martin originally mounted on the small stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer.
Scenic Designer Alexander Dodge helps to expand what, for practical purposes, must have been a very intimate production into one with an overblown grandeur not quite befitting Frank McGuinness' lyrical play. A sloping green metal construct aptly suggests the green hills of Ulster and suits the opening of the second act well when action occurs simultaneously in four different locations. However, the same space and shape isn't as befitting to represent the barracks where the men are first thrown together or the trenches in France at the dawn of what, for most of them, would be their final day.
Dashiell Eaves and Scott Wolf
The effect of McGuinness' drama relies somewhat on knowing the history upon which the events are based. He uses symbols and makes cultural references that may not be familiar to American audiences. Your enjoyment will be greatly enhanced by allowing enough time to absorb the two pages of information included in your Playbill before the performance begins.
McGuinness makes his points sparingly. Although this is a play that ultimately speaks to the horrors and wastefulness of war, we never meet the enemy, the Allied troops or the officers who trained these Irish lads and led them into battle as members of the British armed forces. Instead, the play focuses entirely on the formation of these eight disparate human beings into a unit of comrades prepared to die for each other as much as for their beloved country.
Their personal stories unfold in three efficient scenes, bracketed by the 1969 appearance of the sole survivor among them, hauntingly played by Geddeth Smith. The old man rails against The Battle of the Somme, a 136-day losing campaign that was the bloodiest of the World War I Western Front. We then meet the newly enlisted lads as they shed their civilian trappings, don military garb, learn how to make up a bunk and test each other's mettle. Realizing their lives may be in each other's hands, there's a noticeable wariness among them and some sparring for a pecking order.
The one who stands alone is the disaffected Pyper, wonderfully realized by Theroux and eerily well matched with his elder self. We suspect that each of these young men is running away from something, as much as running to something, but Pyper's enlistment is clearly a suicidal gesture.
When next we see them, they've paired up across the Ulster countryside for some "R&R." For them it would be "recharge and reflection," not "rest and recreation." The initial hardy resolve and eagerness is wearing thin, allowing self-doubt and fear to rise to the surface.
We then jump a few more months to the final scene in the pre-dawn hours on the banks of The Somme. The men playfully reenact a famous Protestant victory that took place on the River Boyne on July 1, 1690, before exchanging symbolic orange sashes with each other and heading off into battle on July 1, 1916. The group has coalesced by their need for each other as much as any need for a cause or a reason. A reason to die. And how sad that a battle which claimed 80% of the 7,000 member 36th Ulster Division before noon on the first day hasn't stood as reminder enough that we do not want to be doing this. McGuinness, in the hands of Martin and his fine acting ensemble, offer us another eloquent reminder.
Performances of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme are at The Wilbur Theatre, 246 Tremont Street, Boston now through May 5th on Tuesday - Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 2pm & 7:30pm. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster at 617-931-2787, Ticketmaster.com or directly at the Wilbur Theatre Box Office or Colonial Theatre Box Office, 106 Bolyston Street, Boston.