There are a couple of fascinating connections between Noel Coward and R.C. Sherriff, playwrights whose best works are numbered among the finest of the 20th Century. Coward was actually starring in a production of Journey’s End — way off in Shanghai — while he was writing his own chef d’oeuvre, Private Lives. Both plays had the distinction of featuring a young Laurence Olivier in their London premieres in 1928 and 1930.
Similarities don’t quite end there, for both playwrights were enlisted in the military during World War 1. Coward saw no action after sustaining an injury in training and, within a year of the Armistice, had his first play staged in London. A true creature of the stage. On the other hand, Sherriff saw plenty of action, but he didn’t begin setting down his experiences until nearly a full decade later, settling back into his career as a humdrum junior insurance clerk until he discovered his voice.
He took to the stage a bit awkwardly and naively, which is all to the good if you’ll peep in on the meticulously detailed production in the Haid Theatre at Belmont Abbey College. This is not a thrill-a-second spectacle customized for the microscopic attention spans of video gamers. Rather it is an immersion into the actual trench warfare experience of World War 1 — showing us the gradual psychological effects of surviving on the frontlines and the tense tedium between actions and bombardments.
The brief five-day arc of the story begins with the arrival of Second Lieutenant Raleigh at a dugout in the British trenches at Saint-Quentin, France, where he is reunited with his college hero, Captain Dennis Stanhope. Sadly, Raleigh is way too close for comfort, since Stanhope has deteriorated under the prolonged stresses of leadership and battle. His surliness, arrogance, and dissipation are offputting at first, compounded by paranoia: betrothed to Raleigh’s sister, he’s afraid that his disillusioned idolizer will write home and wreck his future.
Over the course of the evening, we watch Stanhope having to deal with a quaking malingerer, a superior officer capriciously ordering a perilous raid across enemy lines, and the death of young soldiers under his command. As our aversion to Stanhope subsides, we also find ourselves warming to the irritating officers who share the dugout. They never displace the two men who win our affections most readily, Raleigh and the avuncular Lieutenant Osborne.
Technical director Gary Sivak and his set construction team have done a magnificent job turning the Haid stage into a shambling earthen dugout. Sivak is perfect with the lighting and strobe effects that set the atmosphere and simulate the shellings — until the start of the closing scene, when his background is prematurely lit while somebody is telling us it will “be light soon.” The sonic undertow of shelling and machine gun fire, however, is realistic and beautifully modulated throughout the unfolding drama, erupting thunderously during the climactic German assault.
Never afraid to go across the pond for scripts, director Simon Donoghue gets consistently flavorful Brit accents from his Abbey Players, with only a stray vowel here or there misfiring. Sean Young as a wary Raleigh and Warren English as a fatherly Osborne are indeed likable and admirable, most memorably perhaps in the final scene before setting off on their raid as the clock winds down to zero hour. Freely admitting his shortcomings as a cook, Joey Duckworth is next in our affections as Private Mason with his chipper servility.
Oddly cast as the ever-nibbling Second Lieutenant Trotter, young hyperactive William Daniel Hoffman is more than sufficiently annoying. Far more irritating is the lanky Ronnie Deen as Second Lieutenant Hibbert, who hopes that claims of headaches and neuralgia might win him a speedy discharge from the war. Then we have Bob Sweeten as The Colonel, oozing so much patrician pomposity as he orders the men into battle that peacock feathers nearly sprout in his cap.
At the heart of all the horrifying action — and the maddening inaction — there’s a shell-shocked authenticity to Blake Williams’ performance as Stanhope. Williams has enough charisma for us to spy Stanhope’s kinship with such fallen athletic idols as Biff in Death of a Salesman and Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Ultimately, he is an amalgam of how Raleigh and Osborne see him — somewhere between a natural-born hero and a manchild whose sins are readily forgiven. Even after seeing him at his worst, Raleigh still keeps Stanhope on his lofty pedestal as Osborne tucks him into bed.