Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Gremlin Theatre has mounted a powerful new production of Journey's End. The well-worn realization that "war is hell" does not break new ground, its sensitive portrayal of how individuals cope with being assigned to that hell, and the way in which men (in 1918, only men were on the front) find their common humanity, makes this 91-year-old play worth staging. With unflinching direction by Bain Boehlke and trenchant performances all around, Journey's End draws our sympathy for these men of good will made to wade through the nightmare of trench warfare, as well as our anger at the fools who believe that in this way great problems are solved and peace is established.
Sheriff used a traditional, straightforward narrative style, which today might be called old-fashioned or musty, unspooling the story in linear fashion that compresses everything he wants to say within two fateful days. Boehlke breaths life into the play so that, rather than feeling dated, it feels completely well suited to the era in which it takes place. These men came out of the structured and stratified society of post-Victorian Great Britain with rules of class convention well established and, for the most part, adhered to, only to come face to face with this monster war in which rules and class convention were as useless as a cup of tea in a raging fire. That is one way of understanding the journeythe disciplined footsteps of a polite societythat this war brings to an end.
Journey's End takes place in the common room of an underground officers bunker off the line of trenches dug for miles and miles through the ground in war-torn France. This is not the front line, but the service line, thirty yards behind the front line where the privates, the fighting men, sleep in the open trenches. Officers have at least some comforts and a roof over their headthe class system still firmly in place. Just seventy yards past the Allied front line is the German front line. As one character puts it, "about the length of a rugby field." There has been an eerie silence for a long time in the trenches, which everyone knows cannot last much longer.
The play opens with Captain Hardy (Carl Schoenborn) awaiting his relief, Captain Stanhope (Peter Christian Hansen). The officers serve in rotation, with Stanhope's group settling in for six dayslong enough to believe they will likely be on duty when the long expected German offensive begins. Stanhope is a demanding, well-regarded officer, in spite of the fact that his prime means of getting through the war is the tipping back of numerous bottles of whiskey. Second in command to Stanhope is Lieutenant Osborne (Alan Sorenson), a former schoolmaster with a kindly demeanor that, together with his advanced age, prompts the others to call him "Uncle."
Three second Lieutenants form the rest of the officer corps. Trotter (Jim Ahrens) is even-keeled, amiable, and nostalgic for the tameness of his garden back home. Hibbert is a high-strung fellow who reports mounting pain from neuralgia that demands medical attention. The third is newly arrived Raleigh, fresh out of officers school, with no experience at all. His placement there is no coincidence: he is a huge admirer of Stanhope, as their fathers are friends and Raleigh grew up seeing Stanhope as a heroic big brother. He is elated to be in Stanhope's unit, but Stanhope sees it all very differently. Along with these five officers, their cook, Private Mason (Caleb Wagner), is always on hand. Mason has a brisk sense of humor, and makes the most of it to endure their circumstances and manage the unappetizing choice of food rations.
Suffice to say that issues arise between some of the men. All are put to the test, both in terms of backing one another up and facing the inevitable orders from high command. Sherriff infuses his play with a propulsive cord of tension, a sense of calamity striking any moment and of things ending very badly, and Boehlke reinforces that propulsion with insistent direction, reducing gaps by compressing the play's three acts into two. Boehlke also designed the set, a vividly reproduced underground bunker with a stairway ominously leading up to the war above. Kathy Maxwell's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design create the faint background of bombs blasting at a distance, so regularly that they become unnoticed, like airplanes flying over a home located near an airport, until the dam breaks and the war erupts full force, as lights and sound elicit utter mayhem. Amber Brown has dressed the men in appropriate World War I uniform.
Stanhope is a tinderbox of nerves, offset by his companion the bottle. Hanson reveals the basic decency within the captain, but also the thicket of fears and insecurities that are his driving force. Benjamin Slye perfectly captures the innocence of tenderfoot Raleigh, fanning his worship of Stanhope and naivete about the war so that when the truth arrives, it is like a mirror shattering. Alan Sorenson brings genuine warmth and reason to his portrayal of Osborne, whose steadfastness is what keeps Stanhope from going off the rails.
As 2nd Lt. Hibbert, Kevin Fanshaw conveys the sheer terror of a man who recognizes how impossible it is to outlive a war such as this. Jim Ahrens is an assured presence as Trotter, deflecting the grave danger they all face by focusing on the mundane. Caleb Wagner is wonderful as Mason, the cook, using his wit to make light of the darkness all around and, when called upon, summoning up courage without a moment of hesitation. As the colonel who dispatches the orders from on high, Craig Johnson conveys unexpected sympathy for those under his command, but never questioning the authority he must obey and uphold. In a very small but crucial role of a German soldier, Timothy Kelly embodies the utter terror of being caught on the wrong side of the trenches.
Perhaps Journey's End has nothing new to say about warmaybe it did once, but we have heard and seen these declamations about the futility of war, the waste, the obscenity, Yet war continues all over the world, and it behooves us to not become insensitive to those lessons, even as they approach their centenary. Moreover, the total command of stagecraft in force at Gremlin Theatre ensures that these lessons are not just understood but deeply felt. I look forward to the time when we can consider a play like Journey's End a period piece. As of today, it is a stirring depiction of the toll that war takes on the world today, masked in the costumes, technology and geography of the past.
Journey's End runs through November 10, 2019, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Adults - $28.00; Seniors and Fringe Festival button holders: $25.00; Under age 30 - pay half your age. For tickets and information, visit gremlintheatre.org or call 1-888-718-4253.
Playwright: R. C. Sherriff; Director and Set Design: Bain Boehlke; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Kathy Maxwell; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Technical Director: Carl Schoenborn; Props Design and Stage Manager: Sarah Bauer; Producer: Peter Christian Hansen.
Cast: Jim Ahrens (2nd Lieutenant Trotter), Aaron Boger (Lance-Corporal Broughton), Kevin Fanshaw (2nd Lieutenant Hibbert), Peter Christian Hansen (Captain Stanhope), Craig Johnson (The Colonel), Timothy Kelly (A German Soldier), Bob Malos (The Company Sergeant Major), Carl Schoenborn (Captain Hardy), Henry Sillman (Bert, the Company Signaler), Benjamin Slye (2nd Lieutenant Raleigh), Alan Sorenson (Lieutenant Osborne), Caleb Wagner (Private Mason).