Pacifist Lesson from the Great War
“Journey’s End” is a romantic title for the R. C. Sherriff play that just opened at The Barn Theatre in Ross. To get a better idea of what it’s about, go up close to the stage, and examine the set. Rough beams cross the ceiling, sweaty-looking cots sit on either side, wrinkled old papers are pinned to the walls, dirt spreads over the floor, and a view through the curtained opening shows more dirt outside. “Journey’s End” is not an idyll; it’s a war story. This is a British dugout in W. W. I France, and the trench outside leads into battle. One of the play’s first lines is, “It’s coming pretty soon now.” Flashes in the sky outside and booms from distant artillery confirm that. But when?
This mid-season production from Ross Valley Players departs from the rest of the season, especially from the two comedies that bracket it. “Journey’s End” shows the tedium of waiting for battle and the ways the plucky cook maintains service, no matter what food he has to work with. Captain Stanhope, who’s been here three years and whose nerves are “battered to bits,” numbs his existence with alcohol, while a newly-arrived junior officer is excited about the prospect and thinks it’s “an amazing bit of luck” that he’s been assigned to Stanhope’s battalion.
This all sounds remarkably real, and it was. Sherriff served in the war and was twice wounded. It has been said that “Journey’s End” was his tribute to those who didn’t survive. It came to the stage in London in 1928, with an appropriately young Laurence Olivier in the role of Stanhope. The Ross Valley production was directed by James Dunn, who’d seen the play in London in 2005 and was determined to bring it to Ross Valley, where it is having a west coast premiere. Dunn’s respect for the material shows in every scene.
The British accents seem natural and the pronunciations unaffected. Stanhope is referred to as “Stanup;” the town of Ypres is called “Wipers.”
The set, so important to the mood of the story, was designed by Ron Krempetz and assembled by Ian Swift. The Army costumes, helmets included, were collected by Michael Berg. Maureen Scheuenstuhl arranged the dugout’s props.
Stephen Dietz, who plays the self-controlled 2nd Lt. Trotter, also designed the very effective sound effects. Ellen Brooks and Ian Lamers did the lights, which become more important as the play goes on.
Francis Serpa has the role of idealistic young Lt. Raleigh. Tom Hudgens is Lt. Osborne, everybody’s “uncle,” and Philip Goleman is the terror-stricken Hibbard.
Sean Gunnell portrays Pvt. Mason, the tireless cook, with Jeff Taylor as the Company Sgt. Major. David Yen appears in the Olivier role as edgy long-termer, Capt. Stanhope, explaining his alcohol consumption as, “I couldn’t bear to be fully conscious all the time.”
Two former Peninsula lads — Ross Berger and Steve Price — are double-cast. Berger plays Lance Cpt. Broughton and a German soldier, and Price is both Capt. Hardy and the Colonel.
R. C. Sherriff, says James Dunn, didn’t set out to write a pacifist play, but that’s what he wrote. It’s a strong and moving piece of theatre, and it comes almost 100 years from the beginning of that war.
“Journey’s End” will play at The Barn Theatre in Ross Thursdays through Sunday, Feb. 16. Thursday performances are at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $13 (children and students on Thursday nights) to $22. A “Talkback” with director and actors will take place after matinee performances in February.
To order tickets, call the box office at 456-9555 or see the website, www.rossvalley.players.com.