Alexander Campbell in Private Peaceful
(Photo © Manuel Harlan)
Alexander Campbell in Private Peaceful
(Photo © Manuel Harlan)
Private Tommo Peaceful (Alexander Campbell) doesn't immediately say why he's reliving his life through a long and sleepless night in Flanders Fields in 1916, but the program -- as well as the welter of advance publicity -- for Private Peaceful is explicit: The 17-year-old soldier, who unself-consciously exhibits his heroism during the course of these recollections, is to be shot at dawn for cowardice.

It's clear that this 80-minute adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel for young adults is a polemic. Both award-winning author Morpurgo and adapter-director Simon Reade are crusading in the best manner they know as men of books and the theater to get pardons for the 300 or so World War I soldiers who were quickly court-martialed and shot -- as their fictional Private Peaceful is fated to be -- for failing to follow orders, even though shell shock was a recognized battlefield affliction soon after the brutal trench warfare commenced.

Morpurgo and Reade regard the situation, unchanged after nearly 90 years, as a disgrace. Audiences are likely to concur upon seeing this one-person show, which joins the films Paths of Glory, King & Country, and The Execution of Private Slovik (for example) as works of art that point shaming fingers at the injustices of war. Although Reade's treatment doesn't break new ground, it's indiputably powerful.

Private Peaceful's past was made up for him by Morpurgo, but his drippingly ironic name wasn't plucked from nowhere; it was lifted from a tombstone in a cemetery outside Ypres that the author visited on a tour of Flanders Fields some year ago. Obviously inspired by the Peaceful name, Morpurgo imagined a particular -- and therefore somehow universal -- history for him. Born in Devon and living excitedly in the shadow of his older brother, Charlie, Tommo begins his recollections by focusing on his school days. A naïve and eager lad, he falls for Charlie's girl, Molly, and attaches himself to the adolescent lovers. In no time, he's left school to work alongside Charlie and his father, a man doomed to die when felling a tree. At first, the Great War is just a rumor to Tommo and Charlie; but when recruiters come to their small town, the older boy enlists and the younger one, only 15, decides to become a doughboy as well.

Describing the campaigns in which he participates, and checking his watch every so often to see how much of the night has passed, Tommo eventually recounts the action that led to his final predicament, which involved his wounded brother and a pig-headed commander whom both boys disdain. Although he has already reported the shock he's experienced under sustained shelling, it seems that Tommo's fateful decision had little to do with post-traumatic stress and everything to do with how he behaved when encountering arrogant stupidity. Labeled by his superiors with the adjective "worthless," Private Peaceful nevertheless establishes himself through his long, sweet, harrowing night as eminently worthy.

All one-person theater pieces are showcases, and given the scope and intent of Private Peaceful, this is one of the showiest. Before barely more than an hour has passed, the character grows from a schoolboy to a soldier facing an unfair death with as much courage as he can muster -- this after he has recalled life in the trenches with lice, rats, ceaseless rain, and non-stop artillery fire as constant companions. On a set by Bill Talbot that's as stripped as the metal army cot on which he relaxes and from behind which he contemplates the enemy, Alexander Campbell brings Private Peaceful to open-faced, vibrant life.

This is no marked-time performance. From the moment Campbell raises his head off the cot on which he's trying not to sleep, he hurls himself around the stage with great, long-limbed verve. Without being coy or sentimentalizing the child Tommo, he vivifies the character's schoolboy escapades and gradually fills us in on his precipitate maturation. But Campbell, who's tall and has an unkempt crop of reddish hair, isn't restricted to playing the high-voiced Private Peaceful; he adapts his tones and his loose carriage to impersonate any number of other figures with whom the valiant and hapless protagonist comes into contact, including the loving Molly, a crotchety old woman who prods him to enlist, and the sergeant who issues the foolhardy, fatal order that undoes our young hero.

The gallant turn is well directed by Reade, with lighting by Tim Streader and a terrific sound design -- all that damnable clock-ticking and nerve-wracking rat-a-tat -- by Jason Barnes. This is the same Simon Reade who is partial to story theater and has exercised that predisposition on material as disparate as Ovid's tales and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. (I was more a fan of the former than the latter.) He's from the school where it's taught that whatever action is mentioned in a play must instantly be portrayed. This means, for example, that if Private Peaceful speaks of running to or from something, Reade has the indefatigable Campbell run to or from something. There's a literal quality to the enterprise that takes the edge off it, but only slightly. Starting with the titular figure's name, Private Peaceful comments harshly on the ineffably sad and fathomlessly cruel ironies of war.