War without pepper

I would have left depressed had it not been so funny. Hollywood has realized that audiences just don’t want to watch movies about war — their war, specifically. Why would we want to see plays about it? Whether it’s the Iraq or the Peloponnesian, I’m not sure we do. Nonetheless, the Cellar Theater dishes out an undeniably bold and intuitive production of the World War I era Journey’s End (1928).

In a claustrophobic officers’ dugout, a handful of British officers and lieutenants are aping the signs of the genteel lives they’ve left: right-o this, jolly good that. The story centers on Captain Stanhope (Ben Gamble), a man crumbling under three years of duty, turned volatile and numb by drink. Gamble has an eerie insight into a beaten man’s limits, sneering one moment and convincingly fragile the next. 

What Stanhope looked like before the war shows up in the form of a green 2nd Lieutenant Raleigh (Alan Utley). Enthusiastic and endearing, Raleigh has followed his schoolyard hero to the Western Front, but Stanhope isn’t thrilled. He fears Raleigh might reveal his fallen state to a woman back home and tyrannizes over the young man’s mailings. 

The play hands us just enough storyline to keep us interested, and little enough to be realistic (shooting rats is their greatest diversion, after all). There isn’t one weak link in the cast, allowing smaller struggles to turn epic. A meek and sickly Lieutenant Hibbert (Joel Crabtree) clashes with the honor-bound Stanhope over what it means to pull one’s one weight and suffer silently.

Journey’s End is one of those tender brutes of a story, straddling the line between humor and devastation — all that to say, it’s as funny as it is hard. The men’s jokes rest on a tissue-paper thin tolerance for life’s remaining joys in this stuffy trench. They’re not the breed to carry bawdy photographs in their wallets, but snapshots of their hollyhock bushes. Lieutenant Trotter (Kevin Murray), the jolliest of them all, relies on pleasures of the palate to keep his mind off the shelling:  “War is bad enough already, but war without pepper — it’s bloody awful.” 

Laced with laughter throughout acts one and two, the jokes calm our nerves as much as the characters’, and they have to end sometime. Stanhope receives orders that his men will conduct a raid, and Lynn Utley, as Lieutenant Osbourne, brings a stillness to this tough moment as he ushers young Raleigh through preparations. Director Art Peden knows less is painfully more while we endure climax after climax in this final act — the first one sparse and haunting. 

Before the show began, a woman behind me remarked, “This is different.” This is a snapshot of World War I, but I guess it could be any war as long as the men fighting it are real and breakable, as they always are. Journey’s End is difficult, and I’m still not sure audiences will flock to see war on stage any more than on screen. But the performances are so strong that it will be ranked among those great stories about war we were too worn to see. •



Journey’s End
8pm Fri-Sat
2:30pm Sun (no matinee March 23)
Through April 11
Cellar Theater
800 West Ashby
(210) 733-7258

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