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Journey's End

R.C. Sherriff's play about the tribulations of World War I remains all too timely.

Kieran Campion, Andrew Weems,
and Mark Shanahan in Journey's End
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
During World War I, the widespread despair that afflicted surviving soldiers was labeled "shell shock." By the time of World War II, the condition had become known as "battle fatigue." And in the Vietnam War years, when psychiatric terms were more advanced and such suffering was taken far more seriously by the medical community, the diagnosis was "post-traumatic stress syndrome." But it hasn't often been noted that the affliction, whatever it's called, is not limited to individuals; countries also experience this tenacious malaise.

Since awful things grip nations during wartime and its aftermath, a long stretch can pass before dramatists are able to review a devastating conflict with any degree of emotional remove. That's why it took 11 years for R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End, a knock-out play about the realities of World War I, to show up in England. (Erich Maria Remarque's anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front also arrived in 1929). Based on Sherriff's own tour with the ninth battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, the play depicts the tribulations that the author's fellow soldiers -- and men everywhere -- undergo in the trenches. It is currently receiving a stellar production at the Westport Country Playhouse.

At first glance, Journey's End seems dated. Aside from the stiff-upper-lip behavior manifested by a few of the characters and the "rather" and "right-o" and "jolly good" expressions declaimed, the three-act play is crafted with the sort of extreme care that's often confused nowadays with dramaturgical conservatism. For instance, in one scene, two officers exhibit grace under pressure by chatting about gardening. Elsewhere, Sherriff contrives to have a lieutenant unwittingly tell a cute joke to a colleague who happens to be contemplating his own imminent demise. Such gallantly ironic writing threads through a narrative that also deals overtly with the attributes of heroism -- a preoccupation that is not now trendy in the United States, as Abu Ghraib culprits rather than war heroes grab headlines.

At its core, however, Journey's End is about soldiers at the front lines facing their fears -- a subject as timely now as it was when Homer was spouting The Iliad or when William Shakespeare had Henry V sneak out among his troops. So, as Captain Dennis Stanhope (Mark Shanahan) drinks himself silly every night because he doubts that he's living up to the demands made on him by his commission, his despair is clearly identifiable. His real and imagined dilemmas intensify when Lieutenant Raleigh (Kieran Campion), whose sister is waiting at home for Stanhope, joins the company just as word comes down from higher command that a 12-man raiding party is needed prior to the crucial March, 1918 encounter at St. Quentin.

Sherriff scrutinizes the behavior of a handful of men before and after the dire orders are given. They carry out their assigned duties in diverse ways: Amiable Lieutenant Trotter (Andrew Weems) waves away the dolor, Lieutenant Hibbert (Tommy Schrider) feigns illness, and the older Lieutenant Osborne (James Black) remains avuncular. Other figures come and go as well, including a staunch colonel (George Taylor), a departing captain (Daniel Freedom Stewart) and Private Mason (the appropriately monikered Noble Shropshire), who prepares mystery meats in an off-stage mess before bringing them to table with surpassing equanimity.

Director Gregory Boyd does an immaculate job with the play, helped greatly by set designer Hugh Landwehr's cramped dug-out, John Gromada's explosive battle sounds, Clifton Taylor's canny lighting (watch how the second-act sun moves across the wooden floor), and Linda Fisher's costumes. The actors, well-coached in upper- and lower-class accents by Stephen Gabis, are equally immaculate in their portrayals; Shanahan, Black, Schrider, Campion, and Shropshire are the medal earners among them. Sad to say that Sherriff's play is as meaningful in the era of the Iraq war as it was in its own time.