Even though verisimilitude is not really the point of the new Ross Valley Players production of Journey's End, now playing at the Barn Theatre in Ross, director James Dunn does a brilliant job of exposing the truth of war to those of us in comfy theater seats, at absolutely zero risk of trench foot.
Journey's End takes place in a frontline trench in France, near the end of World War I. Fresh-faced Second Lieutenant Raleigh (Francis Serpa) arrives, eager and tremendously excited that he has been assigned to a company commanded by Captain Stanhope (in a wonderful performance from David Yen), a man Raleigh knew as a boy in school and looked up to as a hero. Raleigh is a naïf with a romantic, unrealistic idea of life during wartime, where Stanhope is a jaded veteran who has taken refuge inside a bottle of whiskey. Together with their fellow officers, they face off against both boredom and the German soldiers who hunker in their own trenches just a few dozen yards away where, intelligence has it, they are preparing for a big push into British-held ground.
All the action is set in a dugout where the officers sleep and eat between their shifts on the front line. The set design by Ron Krempetz is perfect, with a low ceiling, dirty wood planks for walls, crates doing double duty as dining chairsall elements combining to establish the sense of grime and claustrophobia that must have pervaded these places. Costume design from Michael Berg is also terrific.
The performers all do an excellent job maintaining the proper British accents, not to mention communicating the stress the men are under. Philip Goleman has a particularly tough challenge as Second Lieutenant Hibbert, who is suffering with "neuralgia"which today we'd likely see as the first onset of PTSD. When his breakdown begins you see the actor struggling to create that stress for us, but by the time it brings him to the point of collapse, Goleman has made it feel very real.
Young Sean Gunnell also does a fine job in an important role, that of the almost-incessantly cheery cook, Private Mason. With the threat of death looming over every moment, Mason's grinning silliness and working-class wit leavens the proceedings with a needed dash of humor. He puts me in mind of a young Michael Palin.
Ultimately, we realize all these playersboth officers and enlisted menare simply cogs in a giant machine over which they have no control. All their journeys, whether from posh British public school or the mills of northern England, have brought them together in a dangerous, dirty, foreign place, where their journeys could end at any moment.
Journey's End was written in 1929 by R. C. Sherriff, a decorated veteran of the trenches of WWI, and it is rife with what have become clichés of British military drama: the liberal use of "cheerio!" and "I say, old chap," the ingrained class structure and, above all, the "keep calm and carry on" attitude, where a suicide mission is described as "a damned nuisance." (An approach to facing the horrors of war that was brilliantly satirized in one of the sketches in Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.) While these elements could easily come across as stilted, under Dunn's sure hand they serve more to shelter us, so that the realities of war that Sherriff presentsthe boredom that leads men to entertain themselves by racing earwigs, the unexpected quiet, the cruel randomness of mortar fire, the loss of comrades who have become like brothersland with an even more explosive impact.
Journey's End plays Thursdays-Sundays through February 16 at the Barn Theatre at the Marin Art and Garden Center in Ross. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. Weekend ticket prices are $26 general admission, $22 for seniors (62+) and $13 for children under 18. Thursday night tickets are $20 for adults and $13 for children and students with a high school or college ID. Tickets can be ordered by calling 415-456-9555, ext. 1 or visiting www.rossvalleyplayers.com.