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Operation Crucible

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 15, 2018

James Wallwork, Salvatore DÂ’Aquila, Kieran Knowles,
and Christopher McCurry
Photo by Carol Rosegg

"Bang, Bang, Turn, Brush." "Bang, Bang, Turn, Brush." "Bang, Bang, Turn, Brush." These are the sounds of the close-knit coordination and cooperation that are absolutely necessary when you are part of a team tasked at shaping hellishly hot metal in a steel mill. They are also the sounds that introduce us to four ordinary men who are thrust into an extraordinarily life-threatening situation in Kieran Knowles's tension-filled World War II-era drama Operation Crucible, opening tonight as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59 Theaters.

Operation Crucible takes place in late 1940, when the industrial city of Sheffield, England was the target of the infamous German blitzkrieg. The area suffered a terrible bombing raid aimed generally at factories like the one where the play's characters work, buildings that were centers for the manufacture of armaments and shells for use in the war. The play's title is a translation from the German code name for the operation.

The natural rhythm of the play extends the rhythm of the quartet's teamwork as they shape the hot steel plates. Even in straightforward narration, they literally finish each other's sentences, passing phrases from one to the next as the story unfolds. As directed by Bryony Shanahan, it all becomes a highly choreographed and near poetic display.

During the first part of the 80-minute play, we get to meet the characters and learn something of their lives inside and outside of the mill. Arthur (James Wallwork) tells us about the awe he felt the first time his dad took him to the plant when he was seven years old. Bob (Salvatore D'Aquila), the one the others love to tease, talks about the family dog with whom he is in constant battle. Phil (Christopher McCurry) is thrilled to be the father of a newborn son. Tommy (Kieran Knowles, the playwright) explains how he has wallpapered his home bomb shelter. These are little things, but they allow us to identify the men as individuals so they become more and more real to us. We also get a sense of the impact of the war on the civilian population, such as the shortages that plague their lives. The men's eyes light up, for instance, when Arthur tells them, "the greengrocer has oranges on Tuesday. Saw the sign on me way in." And we see them frowning over their meager lunches: bread with Spam, greens from the garden, or homemade jam.

Regardless of whether they are occupied with their work or they are on a break, the men always keep an eye on a light that has been set up as a warning signal. A yellow light means that planes have been spotted at the coast. No worries about that, though. As Tommy explains, "Happened so often it were hardly worth the bother of looking at it."

Then suddenly, in the middle of their shift in the middle of December, it is very much worth the bother. The light turns red and the air raid sirens sound, and the men are ordered to immediately evacuate the premises. They hope to make it to their homes, but they only get as far as a nearby hotel. There they hole up in the basement as the building is pummeled with bombs and starts to collapse all around them. Helpless, with the sounds of destruction everywhere, they must wrestle with their fear in the near darkness, bucking each other up as much as they are able while thinking about their loved ones and the strong possibility they may die at any moment. The impact is especially devastating on Phil, who cannot stop thinking about his wife and son. Were they trapped at home, or did they make it to the neighborhood bomb shelter?

The heart-pounding events are dramatically reinforced by Seth Rook Williams' dim and filtered lighting design and by Daniel Foxsmith's harrowing sound design. British audiences will have their collective memories and family stories of this time period to make the play feel even more gripping for them. But thanks to the strong performances and supportive design elements, Americans as well are likely to find themselves caught up in a war story that is not about heroic battle scenes, but about the collateral damage of war on noncombatant civilians.

Operation Crucible
Through June 3
Theater B at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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