The British military officers in the trenches in R.C. Sherriff's "Journey's End" know that German soldiers sit in their own dugouts less than 100 yards away. They know both sides are cold, lonely, afraid and ready to blow each other to bits. But they don't know a lot else about the progress of World War I, even though they drink their morning whiskey in spitting distance from its front lines.
"My wife reads the papers every morning," remarks one of the officers to his colleague. "And writes and tells me."To experience this immensely powerful 1929 drama today is to marvel at the level of ignorance in which those who risked their lives were once kept. But the advent of mass communications has done nothing to staunch the human weaknesses that precipitate war and demand the sacrifices of others. Had the Internet been in Capt. Stanhope's trench, it wouldn't have alleviated the need for a stiff upper lip.
I find it hard to write objectively about "Journey's End." This was the first serious drama I ever saw. My teachers performed it at my school when I was about 8. I'd never seen a play -- or, at least, a play that I could follow -- that ended with so much death. And, as a selfish kid, I vividly remember being flummoxed by its remarkable portraits of selfless courage -- not represented in some cheap, cliched or jingoistic fashion, but with a full understanding that it would surely have been better for all sides if the sacrifices made on all sides had not been necessary.
After many years out of fashion, "Journey's End" is suddenly popular again. It was on Broadway last year. And it is now the subject of a superbly crafted, very moving, powerfully intimate and thoroughly engrossing Chicago-style revival from the skilled director Jonathan Berry. You do not want to miss it. Along with its hit touring production of "Letters Home," which draws on the correspondence of veterans of the war in Iraq, Griffin Theatre Company is becoming Chicago's chief theatrical chronicler of the experience of the soldier. It is pursuing that role with craft and dignity.
Berry, who helmed the superb Griffin revival of "Dead End" in 2006, has once again shown his casting chops. Nigel Patterson, an actor who has been knocking around the off-Loop for some time, has never done better work than he does here as Osborne, a schoolteacher and, in many ways, an earlier version of the character played by Tom Hanks in "Saving Private Ryan" (a film that I think owes a lot to "Journey's End"). As the young officer Raleigh, John Dixon just couldn't be better. The subject of male friendship, even male adoration, is one of the key themes of this play, and Dixon not only sounds as if he graduated from Eton instead of Northwestern (about 30 seconds ago), but beautifully shows us the intersection of shyness, naivete and bravery.
The trickiest part is Stanhope, the commander at this journey's end and a once-great young man who is now self-medicating against wartime horror with booze. Hans Fleischmann doesn't offer a perfect performance in a role long associated with Laurence Olivier -- Fleischmann has a habit of swallowing lines and is difficult to understand. But he does offer a wholly honest and emotionally rich piece of acting that captures the soul of the man, if not his full context.
This is a long evening, offering little in the way of cheer (although Berry does find a laudable amount of humor in the script and, given the limited budget, the young designer Jessica Kuehnau offers a remarkably rich visual evocation of the front). More Beckett than Shakespeare, this is a play about waiting around for something inevitable and unpleasant. But unlike the absurdists, Sherriff was massively invested in the hearts of the men who wore uniforms. That clear-eyed humanity is why this is a great play and a fine basis for one of those only-in-Chicago small productions that transport you far from Lakeview.
"Journey's End" When: Through March 9 Where: Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes Tickets: $24 at 773-327-5252