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Theatre in Review: Private Peaceful (TBG Mainstage)

Shane O'Regan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Joey, the title character of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, is fed into the vortex of World War I, left to wander a wasteland of death and destruction. Tommo, the soldier protagonist of Morpurgo's Private Peaceful, endures pretty much the same fate as Joey, with even unluckier results: As he discovers, life in the trenches consists of an unendurable reality bookended by the terror of extinction. The plays taken from these novels, of course, are very different: War Horse is a blockbuster with a teeming cast and loads of stagecraft; Private Peaceful is a miniature, in which a single actor -- in this case, the gifted Shane O'Regan -- takes on a variety of roles. Each, however, is similar in its heartbreaking effect: The horse and the young man are vibrant, healthy young beings transformed into beasts of burden -- and, quite possibly, cannon fodder.

Morpurgo's novels are aimed at the young adult market, but his war stories pull no punches and they have, in recent years, become a steady source of stage material. (In addition to War Horse and Private Peaceful, New York has seen Farm Boy, a rousing sequel to War Horse, and 946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, about a plucky young girl, an independent cat, and the D-Day invasion.) Private Peaceful takes its time getting to the killing fields of France and Belgium, first establishing young Tommo's -- the name is short for Thomas -- early years in the English countryside. The scenery may be idyllic, but the horizon is dotted with clouds. Having witnessed his father's death in a forestry accident, he blames himself for not preventing the inevitable. One brother, Big Joe, isn't right in the head; instead of attending school, he "stays at home with Mother, and sits up in his tree singing 'Oranges and Lemons'." Another brother, the older Charlie, is a rocklike source of support, especially against the local bullies, but Tommo bitterly envies Charlie's affair with Molly, a lovely local girl.

Nevertheless, Tommo becomes the lovers' envoy, delivering letters for them and, ultimately, feeling used for doing so. When Molly becomes pregnant, her parents shun her, and she weds Charlie in a remarkably cheerless ceremony that, in the text's gorgeously economical account, reveals the killing effects of piety without love: "There was no one there except the vicar and the five of us, and the vicar's wife sitting at the back," Tommo recalls. "Everyone knew about Molly's baby by now, so the vicar only agreed to marry them on certain conditions: that no bells are rung, no hymns sung. He rushed through the marriage service as if he wanted to be somewhere else. There was no wedding feast afterwards, only a cup of tea and a slice of fruit-cake when we got home." Torn by feelings of longing and displacement, Tommo falls for the siren call of a sergeant major's recruiting pitch and enlists in the army. Even with a child on the way, Charlie opts to join up, too, and soon the brothers are dispatched to Belgium, where unimaginable horrors await.

Of course, no one has warned Tommo and Charlie about the filth, the lice, and the damp, not to mention the disorienting, nonstop bombardments. Much of the brothers' suffering is at the hands of their own side, from the regulation boots that are too big -- "So we clomped about like clowns -- clowns in tin hats and khaki" -- to the punishment for insubordination that finds Charlie -- caught, once again, sticking up for Tommo -- tied to a gun wheel, a form of torture that recalls the crucified Christ. One nightmarish detail supplants another: Tommo sticks a shovel into the ground of his ramshackle trench, unleashing a horde of rats. A "killer cloud" of mustard gas floats across the field of battle like one of the plagues of Egypt, bringing lung-searing pain to any soldier who fails to don his gas mask in time. A raid by the brothers on a German dugout ends in a tableau of bodies with a sole whimpering, terrified survivor.

The action returns, time and again, to Tommo, late at night, staying awake, fending off a dreaded dawn by recalling how he got to this desolate moment -- the circumstances of which are kept under wraps until just before the end. One can guess what has happened to him -- but when the full facts are revealed, they are even more wrenching than one expects. Tommo and Charlie are only two of millions of anonymous soldiers, but what happens to them approaches the level of tragedy.

That this is so can be attributed to Simon Reade's sensitive adaptation of Morpurgo's text. Taking time for us to get to know Tommo and his world, the playwright grants us entry into the boy's vibrant inner life, a decision that throws his suffering into high relief; he stands in for a generation of lost young men. I'd happier if I could have reported that Reade's direction wasn't quite so busy, finding a fussy bit of stage business for each moment and character; all the stomping about and shouting becomes wearisome at times. O'Regan's sometimes rushed delivery also causes minor audibility problems. A more varied pace, with a little extra breathing room to allow some of the key dramatic points to sink in, would have resulted in an even more powerful production.

Still, O'Regan, who is possessed of untold funds of energy, conjures up, in addition to Tommo and Charlie, a universe of characters -- their parents, Molly, her chillingly unsympathetic mother, a priggish vicar, a mad old woman who goads Tommo into enlisting, a sadistic sergeant, and many others. And he brings a terrible sense of heartbreak to Tommo and Charlie's climactic scene. This production, which he has toured in Ireland, should serve him well as a calling card over here.

Anshuman Bhatia's simple set places an army cot against a drop depicting a cloud-swept sky; Bhatia's lighting creates some appealing pastel looks and evokes various interiors, including the local church. Jason Barnes' sound design ranges from English folk songs, heard before curtain time, to a ticking clock, tolling bells, and military ordnance of all sorts.

Private Peaceful may lack the redemptive qualities of War Horse, but it draws one so completely into its narrator's consciousness that one feels caught up in his present-tense existence, especially when lost in the sensory onslaught of battle. There are many anti-war plays, but, more than most, this one details with terrible exactitude what it does to those who are unprepared for it -- which is to say everyone. -- David Barbour

(6 September 2018)

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