|A JOURNEY NOT TAKEN
by Harvey Perr
now playing on Broadway at the Belasco
There are two moments in the revival of R.C. Sherriff’s “Journey’s End” which will assuredly disturb the dreams and haunt the waking hours – for a long time to come – of anyone who has seen it. They are both moments of silence, although the silences are far from quiet. In the first, a dugout in the British trenches somewhere in France during World War I, which is the locale of the play, and which has been deserted by its soldiers in answer to a siege by the Germans that has been anticipated for weeks but nevertheless comes with the suddenness of summer lightning, becomes flooded with gas and smoke, as the battle rages on outside. There is an eerie beauty to the moment as the light from the open door filters through, but there is also the stench of death in it, and the hell that all troops must live with in wartime is made painfully and cruelly evident. The second moment, which comes in the final moments, is played out not only in unquiet silence but in darkness as well, a powerfully implicit commentary on the futility and finality of war, and precedes the most heart-stopping curtain call you are likely to see in a Broadway theater this season.
It should come as no real surprise that “Journey’s End” is at its most starkly brilliant in moments of silence. The play, written in 1928, does not revel in language or provide depth of characterization through revealing dialogue or pause to indulge in self-consciously profound anti-war commentary. It doesn’t, in effect, do what one understands great plays are supposed to do.
Its author, despite his contributions to some movies that were quite popular in their time (most notably “The Bride of Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man” and “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” in the thirties, “Odd Man Out” and the two Somerset Maugham omnibus films – “Quartet” and “Trio” – in the late forties and early fifties), never really wrote another play that was its equal. And yet “Journey’s End’ is a timeless masterpiece, one of those rare works that almost never fails to make an impact, precisely because, whatever its literary limitations, its honest and simple picture of men going about their business in the midst of devastating chaos always rings true. And this excellent production, under the deeply felt and unsentimental guidance of director David Grindley, offers ample proof of those plain virtues.
The bravest truth about Sherriff’s comrades-in-arms – and perhaps the reason they have remained so fresh through the passage of time – is that they are not exactly men of exceptional courage, fighting for dear old England in some jingoistic melodrama, but that they are scarred and weary, afraid to die and afraid to live, even cowardly in the face of the monstrous trench warfare they have come to know and abhor, real flesh-and-blood human beings who bring home to us the terrible costs of war. Captain Stanhope, the central character, is, after all, a mere twenty-one years old and, after three years of living and fighting in this muck, is becoming a desperate alcoholic, ashamed of the respect and admiration of his fellow soldiers, plunged into despair even as he remains valiant, far older than his years and yet still gracelessly boyish. In this part, Hugh Dancy, a new face to us, becomes a star, creating, as he does, a character of great complexity in the subtlest ways; he hides from us, and from himself, his cheerlessness and his bitterness, but they break through in the slight crookedness of his smile, in the vacancy behind his eyes. We know exactly why he is loved by others and why, at the same time, he hates himself.
This revival is peopled with a splendid group of actors who, in collaboration with their director, eschew any sense of theatricality or mustiness that so frequently clings to plays written when this one was. The tone is set at the very beginning by John Curless as the captain who is about to go on leave. Each character has his defining minute. We feel as well as see the eagerness in Stark Sands’s portrait of the young lieutenant whose sister was Stanhope’s civilian love, the trembling fear in Justin Blanchard’s otherwise manly coward, the warmth that Boyd Gaines finds lurking behind his character’s stolidity.
The set that Jonathan Fensom has designed may not be the rat-infested dugout that we hear described but it is dank enough to be forbidding, and Jason Taylor’s appropriately dim lighting makes it seem even danker except, of course, in those moments when daylight, like poetry, pokes through its door.
If there is a weakness in this production – and this is a minor complaint – it is that a certain flavor is lost by giving the actors – the cast is composed largely of Americans –
rather uniform British accents. The sense of class distinction, of men from different backgrounds being thrust together, is diminished. Jefferson Mays, in a part clearly intended as comic relief, seems particularly reined in by this approach. And the tender love that must exist between Dancy and Gaines is compromised by their not finding common ground in the vernacular they share. It could also be argued that something is gained by making the play seem less specific and more universal. It brings the sorrowful anger of “Journey’s End” right up to the present moment.