Through meticulous attention to detail, Stage III’s “Journey’s End” takes audiences into a dugout in the trenches of World War I with a group of British soldiers as they anticipate a German attack.
The play opens Friday at Stage III Community Theatre and closes Nov. 11, 100 years to the day of the armistice, which inspired Veterans Day.
It was director Dob Wallace’s idea of the play to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. His lifelong interest in the military led him to serve in the Marines. Years ago, he directed a play at Stage III about World War II on an anniversary of the war’s start and had always thought about directing another.
“I guess what I would like is for audiences to have an insight into the sacrifices that soldiers make and an understanding that it’s not like it’s portrayed in the movies or television,” he said.
The playwright, R.C. Sherriff, fought in World War I and went on to write the critically acclaimed play.
“He virtually lived this story; it’s real,” Wallace said. “And so you don’t get those kind of flashes of something that’s just tossed in for dramatic purposes. So I think veterans will recognize a real representation of their experience and maybe appreciate the fact that it works on that level.”
It’s a heavy play, he said.
“It’s dark and it deals with issues of warfare, and it deals with the issue of what the effect of warfare on a normal person is, how you survive, what kind of coping mechanisms you use, the whole idea of courage and heroism in warfare and what does it cost the individual to be brave,” he said.
“There’s a theme that goes through this show of sticking it,” he added, “just the idea of sticking it out as opposed to reaching your limit and just going home, finding an excuse to get out.”
Creating atmosphere, setting the stage
Wallace and assistant director Eric Coates worked to recreate the atmosphere in which the play is set. The set includes authentic touches like a trench wall made of real aged wood and a bunker system.
Most of the play takes place inside the officers dugout, where the directors put exacting research and detail into the set, costumes and acting.
They encourage people to catch the details in the set as they walk to their seats. They worked to create the sense of claustrophobia soldiers experienced in the war.
Actors are crowded into a space and, like the set, head into the audience space at times. Sight lines are broken by a support pillars of the dugout in the middle of the unconventional set.
“We think it’s going to be a very immersive experience for audiences,” Dob Wallace said. “And the lighting effects and sound effects are going to really bring that out, too.”
Tacked to a post in the dugout is a copy of an advertisement from the Wipers Times, a satirical newspaper that was published on a captured or reclaimed press, Coates said.
“So think of The Onion for World War I trench warfare,” Coates said. “That was one of the advertisements. That was actually something they printed back in the day.”
They printed old labels for cans and newspapers from the time.
There’s even a bed packed with straw, “So it sounds right,” Coates said.
On the table is a replica of a World War I trench map Coates found in a database. He searched through the maps until he found one similar to features described in the play, including a ruined village and a trench that starts in the basement of one of the houses, Coates said.
The directors did a lot of the research. Coates, for instance read many memoirs and accounts from soldiers who’d lived through the war — “talking about what a dugout was like, what a trench was like what their experience was like, just to get the flavor right,” Coates said.
Recreating the look of British uniforms from 100 years ago was the toughest part, Coates said. Much of the uniforms came from Wallace’s collection, which is like a museum, Coates said.
The actors too had to look the part, which meant shaving beards and in some cases chopping of the long locks for the clean-cut hairstyle.
British soldiers were required to wear a mustache if they could grow one because it was the style of the times. But all World War I soldiers had to shave beards so they could wear gas masks.
The actors learned to behave like British military as well, said Wallace’s son, William, who had to improve his posture to portray a military character.
The actors also delve into their characters struggles and motivations.
According to Wallace’s director’s note, the actors reveal “the fear, resignation, and war weariness that are always present beneath the surface for most of the characters, even during the sometimes-happy banter of the script.”
The actors added to the play’s meticulousness as well — like a song that actor Seth Brummer sings at one point while shaving in the dugout.
He looked up the song and found it was one written during the war called “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-winding.“
“It stayed popular throughout the war and just to have trotter singing that — badly signing that as the case may be — i’s just another little touch that helps give a feel for the time period and who these men are and give a little bit of personality to the setting and to the characters,” said Brummer, who helped the actors maintain accurate accents.
Cuinn Lovelace is high school sophomore portraying a soldier and German boy the British troops capture.
The play offers serious scenes and lighthearted scenes and some uplifting moments, he said.
He’s always been interested in history, but things like seeing the trench wall on stage help him understand more about what it was like in the trenches than reading or watching a movie, he said.
“It’s very interesting to see how deep they had to dig just to keep themselves safe,” he said. “It definitely makes me think about why so many soldiers had nightmares after the war got over. It really makes you think on what they saw and had to do. It’s very dark in some areas.”
Steven Spicher portrays Lieutenant Osborne, who’s older than the rest of the group and affectionately referred to as “uncle.”
The play shows many different reactions of deal with the stresses of war, he said. Osborne likes to put a distance between himself and the reality of what is going on.
Osborne at one point tells Raleigh to view his situation through a romantic lens, almost as if he’s living in a book.
“And I think that that’s necessary for him,” Spicher said, “not so much because what it does to him but because he’s the schoolmaster he watches these kids come and then it destroys their lives.”
His character tends to remain optimistic. But that optimism wavers for a moment when he finds out he’s heading to a raid.
“It’s essentially a death sentence for most of us,” Spicher said.
The show will come to a close the afternoon of Veterans Day, and Spicher expects the importance of that anniversary to affect each performance.
“Even though, obviously, we won’t have any vets from World War I in here, we’ll have people who have fond memories of their military service and I think this will speak to that,” Spicher said. “... It will be interesting to see how it plays to the audience because I think it could really be powerful.”