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The Trench Connection

A poignant work explores the realities of war

Gregory Beck Jericho (left) and Andrew Macomber II go underground.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 6/2/2010

Journey's End

By R.C. Sherriff

Through June 6 at Fells Point Corner Theatre

World War I was fought largely in trenches cut deep into the European countryside. Men lived and fought in these glorified ant farms, sometimes as little as 30 yards from their enemies. These were horrible places filled with rats and lice, breeding grounds for disease where men spent days and, over time, years waiting to be shot or shelled. Many were diagnosed with shell shock, a state these days referred to post-traumatic stress disorder.

It is in this disturbing environment, oases of horror in deserts of boredom--to paraphrase Baudelaire--that R.C. Sherriff's deeply moving play, Journey's End, takes place. A British Army company spends four days in a trench on the front lines. They are led by Stanhope (Andrew Macomber II), who has the dubious distinction of doing more time on the front lines than anyone else. His second-in-command is Osbourne (Greg Guyton), a kind, loyal man who was a schoolteacher in civilian life. Stanhope has a reputation as a fearless and talented leader who drinks himself into oblivion on a regular basis. What destroys the delicate balance between Stanhope's military finesse and debauchery is the arrival of a new young solider.

Raleigh (Alex Hayes) grew up with Stanhope. He knew him from school, where Stanhope was a champion athlete and their parents were friends, making Stanhope a surrogate older brother to the boy. To further their entanglement, Stanhope is unofficially engaged to Raleigh's sister. And rather than welcoming his old friend with open arms, Stanhope is enraged when Raleigh begs his way into his company. The war has changed him, forcing him to drink to bear the misery of it and have the courage to go into the trenches day after day with mortar shells and bullets flying. He can live with what he has to be, but not with Raleigh's sister knowing what he has become. Oh--and there is the small matter of a major offensive headed their way.

Sherriff served in World War I and had an intimate knowledge of the cesspool of the trenches and the frustrations and valor of battle. And his characters, while archetypes--the wise older man, the eager young buck, the grizzled hero--feel real. The cast does an amazing job fleshing out these men. Guyton is unfailingly likable as Osbourne, but with a weariness that grounds the character, throwing out lines to new recruit Raleigh such as, "Think of all of it as romantic, it helps."

Hayes manages to show the transition from youthful naiveté to battle-worn soldier in just a few days without making the character feel disjointed. Macomber is initially off-putting as Stanhope, playing him as a massive jutting chin, but as the play progresses it becomes clear that this is part of Stanhope's eroding façade rather than an actor's tic. In a scene in which Stanhope confronts Hibbert (Gregory Beck Jericho), a soldier he believes is faking illness to get sent home, Macomber shows the cruelty, warmth, and vulnerability that coincide so uneasily in his character.

Kathi Panos' bravura set allows the actors to create a totally believable world in the dingy darkness of a trench bunker. Her creation has an artfully slapdash feel that perfectly fits the setting. And director Richard Dean Stover manages to make a play with only one setting feel dynamic. Ryan Brown's performance was a weak point in an otherwise uniformly strong cast; his German soldier felt like a cartoon. The only other thing that disturbed a complete immersion in the story was the costuming. The perfectly pressed cleanliness of the officers' uniforms, even when they were supposed to have crawled through mud or be covered in blood, was distracting. In a play this strong, the details can really make a difference.

A recent matinee had just eight people in the audience, including the reviewer and the person working the concession stand. A production as moving and complex as this deserves far more attention.

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