Wednesday, September 5, 2018

72 (2018-2019): Review: PRIVATE PEACEFUL (seen September 4, 2018)

“His Journey’s End”

On November 11, 1918, the armistice ending World War I was signed. Exactly one year later, the first Armistice Day, a national holiday, was commemorated. Two months from now, the holiday (renamed Veterans Day in 1954) will celebrate its 99th anniversary. Perhaps it’s by coincidence, perhaps by planning, but the opening in New York this week of two plays inspired by World War I, one recent (Private Peaceful), and one first produced in 1919 (Shaw’s Heartbreak House), helps to remind us of that momentous conflict, whose repercussions are still with us a century later. 
Shane O'Regan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Private Peaceful, by Michael Morpurgo, whose World War I story War Horse became a hit play and a Steven Spielberg movie, is British director Simon Reade’s adaptation for a single actor of Morpurgo’s prizewinning book for young adults (which became a 2014 film). The play was first seen locally in a 2006 production starring Alexander Campbell, In the current revival, Irish actor Shane O’Regan, who starred in the 2017 British premiere, repeats his all-out performance as the allegorically dubbed teenager, Tommo Peaceful, who joins the army and meets his fate at Ypres.
Shane O'Regan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
There really isn’t much here that hasn’t been seen or heard in the dozens of earlier plays and movies about World War I, especially those (unlike Heartbreak House) that take us into the hellhole of trench warfare. Private Peaceful, instead, registers principally as an opportunity for O’Regan to embody 24 characters, civilian and military, male and female, young and old. He does so on a mostly bare stage designed by Anshuman Batia with a cloud backdrop enhanced by multiple lighting cues.
Shane O'Regan. Ahron R. Foster.
Reade’s direction is minimalist, introducing barely any hand props and incorporating a single cot that, when turned on its side, with its mattress laid on the floor, serves as a trench, with Tommo peering out through the barbed wire-like hatch-work of its springs.

Nearly half of the script, narrated to us by Tommo, is about his childhood, growing up in a small English town. His father—for whose death he undeservedly blames himself—was the fifth generation of Peacefuls who worked for the family of the Colonel, a wealthy landowner. One brother, a hulking overeater, is Big Joe, brain damaged from childhood meningitis; the other is Charlie, three years older and Tommo’s protector and idol.
Shane O'Regan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Tommo recounts typical boyhood scenes, idyllic and cruel, such as fishing and hunting with his brother, being rescued from a schoolyard bully, sharing a martinet of a teacher, and being attracted to Molly, the girl Charlie will one day marry (guess why). War erupts, a recruiter shows up, and both Charlie and his underage sibling enlist.

Then follows a familiar litany of boot camp training under the sadistic Sergeant Hanley, the physical discomforts of rats, lice, and rain in the muddy trenches, the ceaseless bombardments, the mindless killing, and, the climactic decision that leads to Tommo's ironic fate. Too quickly introduced and disposed of, it nonetheless answers with a potent jolt the question of why Tommo’s always checking the ticking of his watch. 
Shane O'Regan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Morpurgo’s writing is brisk and unsentimental, as we’d expect for dialogue streaming from the mouth of a young, country-bred soldier like Tommo. Like any such coming-of-age story set against the well-researched and both nostalgic and horrific background of World War I, the material is inherently interesting. Nor could its message about the immorality and insanity of war be any clearer. In performance, however, it becomes more a display of the actor’s considerable vocal and physical craft—with one dramatic moment following the other in rapid succession—than the emotionally powerful experience it deserves to be.
Shane O'Regan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Burdened by the numerous exaggerated vocal transformations and regional accents needed to keep each character clear; by the frequent shouting, even when the bombs of Jason Barnes’s excellent sound design aren’t exploding; and by movement director Sue Mythen’s constant physicalization of nearly every moment, O’Regan’s portrayal of Tommo becomes an overactive voice and body that fail to coalesce into the tragic figure who should bring tears to our eyes.
Shane O'Regan. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Private Peaceful, which runs an hour and 25 minutes, and will continue to tour when its local run concludes, will appeal to those interested in solo shows featuring tour-de-force acting demanding multiple characterizations. If O’Regan’s performance can be viewed as a war between reaching an audience emotionally and impressing it technically, the victor is definitely the latter.


TBG Mainstage
312 W. 36th St., NYC
Through October 7