The production of “Journey’s End” on stage at the National World War I Museum is a history lesson in more ways than one. One on level, R.C. Sherriff’s autobiographical depiction of British troops on the front line communicates the boredom, dread and terror of trench warfare during the First World War. On another, viewers will see what a three-act realistic play from 1928 looks like. Sherriff’s drama, thoughtfully constructed with close attention to character details, was designed to give audiences an honest portrayal of the war. There’s no emphasis on military “glory,” but plenty on the emotional and psychological price paid by men who had to carry out orders that could not be executed with taking casualties. The show, directed by Mark Robbins, is officially a co-production between Kansas City Actors Theatre, the University of Missouri-Kansas City theater department and the museum. All the design work was executed by graduate students and it is first-rate. Robbins offers viewers just one intermission following Act 1 and combines the second and third acts to be performed continuously. He also captures some very nice performances from a cast of local professionals and student actors. This is a tricky play thanks to a generally earnest tone offset to some degree by moments of humor and irony. Robbins and his actors handle those juxtapositions gracefully for the most part.
I have to admit that there is something refreshing about the uncomplicated psychology and straight-forward storytelling in this play. The clarity Sherriff achieved is remarkable. Still, after all is said and done, the show inspires our intellectual admiration while engaging our emotions only intermittently. There’s no dramatic knockout punch.
Set entirely in an officers’ dugout, the narrative revolves around the sometimes messy relationships among the men as they prepare for an expected German attack. In Capt. Stanhope (Matt Leonard) we encounter a young exhausted officer whose sense of responsibility is so strong that he’s never gone on leave since arriving at the front. His service has clearly taken its toll, for which he has one remedy: whiskey. His friendship with the older Lt. Osborne (Charles Fugate) manifests itself through Osborne’s almost paternal attitude towards the young captain in danger of burning out.
Stanhope doesn’t react well when Lt. Raleigh (Jacob Aaron Cullum), one of his old school chums, is assigned to his company. Stanhope’s objections seem predicated on the notion that Raleigh is guilty of hero worship and that Stanhope can’t possibly live up to such expectations.
Also in the mix are Lt. Trotter (Matt Rapport), a rotund, unflappable sort with a garrulous sense of humor; Lt. Hibbert (Nick Papamihalakis), the company coward; Capt. Hardy (Spencer D. Christensen), amiable and sardonic, who makes a brief appearance at the beginning of the play; and the Colonel (John Rensenhouse), who reluctantly issues orders he knows will exact a high price.
There’s also the officers’ Cook, Pvt. Mason (Joseph Fournier) and the company sergeant-major (Logan Black).
Some performances are better than others. Among the best are those delivered by Fugate, who achieves real poignancy as he prepares to go on a mission he probably won’t survive, and Rapport, who so effortlessly slips inside Trotter’s skin you’d think the part was written specifically for him. Cullum gives us a focused, keenly felt performance as Raleigh. Fournier, as the officers’ cook and servant, generates a dry sense of humor as he serves meager meals and responds to every officer’s whim; we feel for him when, in preparation for the German assault, he must pick up his rifle and helmet and go to the trenches. As the sergeant-major, Black delivers a flawless, unfussy performance with a spot-on working class accent.
At moments the execution of what are clearly intended to be dramatic high points falters. A sequence in which Stanhope first threatens Hibbert with what amounts to summary execution, and then shifts gears to become solicitous and empathetic, doesn’t quite work. Leonard’s performance is generally impressive for its intensity but the role requires a more nuanced approach. Uldarico Sarmiento’s design for the dugout is an impressive piece of work, while Devorah Kengmana’s lighting captures the dugout’s dim illumination and the flare of very lights seen through the dugout entrance. Sound effects are crucial in this show and Michael Heuer creates an impressive soundscape of distant artillery and machine gun fire.
“Journey’s End” runs through March 2 at the National World War I Museum. For more information, call 816-235-6222 or go to KCActors.org.