Thursday, February 22, 2007

Journey's End: Powerful WWI Drama Packs a Punch

Journey's End, the story of six British soldiers posted to the front line in WWI, opens tonight on Broadway. This revival was a hit in London's West End, and I have no doubt that it will perform similarly in New York.

The entire play takes place in a candlelit bunker as the young officers talk about rugby, cricket, and other trivial matters, staving off fear and dread as they await a major assault by the Germans, who are in their own trenches only 70 yards away. The cast is outstanding, with a particularly fine performance by Tony Award-winning actor Boyd Gaines in the role of Lieutenant Osborne. The ensemble also features the handsome young actor Hugh Dancy (tipped as the “next Orlando Bloom”) as the alcoholic, deeply conflicted, ultimately tragic Captain Stanhope. I entered the theater expecting to see a sad story about the war's terrible toll in human lives, and it was certainly that. There was no perfunctory, empty Broadway standing ovation at the conclusion of this performance. The audience remained seated, first offering hesitant, then resolute, weeping applause as the actor/soldiers stood at attention in front of a wall of names of the British war dead.

Journey's End was first produced in London in 1928, just ten years after the end of the war. The current director's notes describe the difficulty that the unknown writer, R.C. Sherriff (who went on to write classics like Goodbye, Mr. Chips), had in getting the play produced. Similar to our own feelings about 9/11, the British public felt that the subject was still too raw and painful to address in the theater. This was understandable, given that Britain had endured 700,000 deaths with another three million injured. The play was first presented simply as a staged reading in London, featuring an unknown young actor named Laurence Olivier in the leading role. Current director David Grindley writes that "despite a tremendous reaction by press and public alike," it was an uphill battle to get a commercial producer to mount a full production. Journey’s End finally opened on January 21, 1929 to poor advance ticket sales, gradually building an audience by word of mouth. By the end of the year, there were fourteen productions in English, including one on Broadway, and seventeen more in translation around Europe. The play, rather than exacerbating the pain of the post-WWI era, proved to be a cathartic experience.

Director Grindley, who also directed the 2004 London revival, has done a wonderful job with Journey’s End, which makes a powerful statement about loyalty, duty, and personal sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds.

Journey’s End is playing at the Belasco Theater, 111 West 44th Street, New York, NY. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission. May be inappropriate for children 12 and under.

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