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A ‘Journey’ into the soul

WW I drama ‘Journey’s End’ enlightens and inspires at the REP

Posted: March 23, 2012 6:00 a.m.
Updated: March 23, 2012 6:00 a.m.

Stephen Bailey plays 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh in “Journey’s End.”

 

"Journey's End" opened at the Repertory East Playhouse in Newhall last Friday night, and I count myself as fortunate to have been there to experience it. Though it ran a bit long the first time out, I left the theater knowing it had been an evening well-spent because I had been both moved and enlightened during my own journey to a different time and place.

This is good old-fashioned drama - the kind that makes you search your soul.

Set in the trenches near Saint Quentin in France, toward the end of World War I, "Journey's End" offers a glimpse into the experiences of the officers of a British Army infantry company. The entire story plays out in the officers' dugout over four days from March 18 to March 21, 1918, and the events depicted are based on author R. C. Sherriff's own experiences in those hellish trenches 94 years ago.

As the promotion puts it "this gripping tale about ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances celebrates humor and courage, engaging audiences with a compelling insight into how, in the face of adversity, the human spirit will always triumph." And it does exactly that, yet, at the same time, points out the tragedy and waste of war.

The story begins as 18-year-old, 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh arrives at the trenches, to join the company commanded by his former schoolboy friend, Captain Stanhope. But the war has changed Stanhope, which brings its own complications, amid the larger issues of the war, itself, plus a suicidal daylight raid and a massive German attack.

Each one of the officers must deal with these events in his own way, finding the courage and the coping mechanisms to lead men in the face of death.

The set for "Journey's End" is a simple yet compelling structure of wooden slats walling the dugout, steps leading up to the war, and artwork of soldiers on the battlefield above. Combined with the artful use of lighting to simulate flares and explosions and candles lit and put out, and the sounds of those explosions and machine guns, you find yourself living the war outside, though you never actually see it.

I, for one, was happy to remain in the safety of the dugout, while other men's lives were on the line above. But you still ask yourself the question: Would I go up those steps?

Actors Reid Gormly, who plays Captain Stanhope, and Daniel Lench, who plays Lieutenant Osborne ("Uncle") offered me their thoughts on this.

"It's a piece that means so much," Lench said, one in which periods of silence can be as powerful as dialogue. "It shows that war is hell," he added, and he felt the greater issue is that war can be such wasteful nonsense as well. For example, the play points out that both the Germans and the British were decent men, forced into killing each other on a massive scale.

Gormly said the play brings history alive, something you can't get studying it in school. "In school you don't understand the gravity of it," he said. And he felt his character of Stanhope (a tortured soul) offered a new and challenging experience for him.

In that, Gormly triumphed. His Stanhope is immediately convincing as the whisky-sustained commander carrying the weight of his men on his heart so heavily he can't let himself sleep and barely allows himself time in the dugout away from danger. His brittle mood swings, and their effects on the other officers, are painful to watch, yet completely reasonable, given his situation.

Lench, as "Uncle," is the oil on the waters here. In the face of all this insanity, and almost certain death, he maintains an air of decency, honor and insight that seems to offer protection from the very bullets. And his absence at the time he would be most needed feels like a sorrowful vacuum.

Stephen Bailey is ultimately believable as the earnest and true 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh. It breaks your heart when his hero, Stanhope, turns on him, and the anguish he endures after the tragic suicide mission is quite powerful. His last scene with Stanhope is incredibly sad and yet uplifting at the same time.

Nathan Inzerillo plays 2nd Lieutenant Trotter. His character is also a down-two-earth, calming influence, as he seems uniquely able to focus on food and such amidst all the hell. He has some humorous lines as well.

Kyle Kulish, as the cook, Private Mason, seems totally of the world below ground, fussing and fetching and catering to his officers' needs as if there is no war above. His humorous lines and bustlings provide the comic relief that is vital here.
Jeff Hyde looks and acts the perfect Sergeant Major. You'd expect bullets to bounce off him.

Tom Lund plays 2nd Lieutenant Hibbert, a would-be coward who bucks up with the strong-arm help of Stanhope. This might be the "boo-hiss" role except that Lund makes him so real as to be sympathetic.

Harry Bennett seems well-cast as the Colonel who must follow foolish orders and send men to their deaths with a pat on the back. You feel his helplessness and guilt despite his stiff upper lip.

Michael Levine, as Captain Hardy, and Connor Pratt, as a captured German soldier, have very limited time to work, unfortunately. Hardy is on stage only early to set up the story, and the German is only present to whimper and whine and have "vital" information taken out of his pockets. But the actors do what they can in their roles.

It should be noted that, funded by a grant from the city of Santa Clarita, the REP is hosting a Veterans Memorial and Appreciation Museum during the run of the show. The VMA Museum is focused around an educational center that celebrates and recognizes Santa Clarita's veterans of foreign wars.

"Journey's End" continues through April 14. Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. There is no show Sunday, April 8. Tickets are $20 for adults and $17 for students and seniors. Tickets for all military veterans and active military are $12. Group rates are available. For tickets, purchase online at www.repeastplayhouse.org or call (661) 288-0000. The REP is located at 24266 Main Street in the heart of Old Town Newhall.

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