Where: Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Nov. 11
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Private Peaceful” is one of the most moving shows you’re likely to see this season.
Based on the 2003 novel for young adults by Michael Morpurgo (who also wrote “War Horse”), adapted for the stage the following year by Simon Reade, the play is the perfect microcosm of the futility and terrible cost of war, specifically World War I but really all wars including those now raging.
The solo piece directed by Reade has been touring for some time with youthful Irish actor Shane O’Regan in the title role (a real name Morpurgo found in a war cemetery outside of Ypres, Belgium), and it would be hard to imagine anyone better at inspiring empathy just by simply telling his story.
O’Regan plays Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful, a private we first see curled up on a cot in the dark—austere but effective scenic and lighting design by Anshuman Bhatia—his uniform jacket folded up as a pillow, his helmet on the floor nearby. As he holds up his wristwatch to hear it ticking and check the time, we learn that it is around 10 p.m., and he is in prison awaiting execution at dawn for “cowardice.”
To feel “alive” rather than sleeping away his last hours, Tommo relives his all-too-brief 17 years, from his childhood in the tiny village of Iddesleigh, Devonshire, to the killing fields of Flanders. In the course of 85-or-so minutes, O’Regan vividly becomes two-dozen characters ranging from his beloved brother Charlie, three years his senior, to his nasty nemesis, Sgt. Hanley.
His early experiences are not unlike those of so many other boys, though the details may be different.
He recounts the joys and pains of the first days of school, his guilt over the accidental death of his father trying to save him from a falling tree, holding his own with a bully, poaching on the grounds of the local lord, eating potatoes to get through tough times, a fishing expedition, seeing his first airplane and giving the lost pilot directions, and most of all, his life-long relationship with Molly and Charlie, the young woman both of them love and Charlie marries.
The war initially is a far-off venture involving some murdered archduke, but the fighting soon moves into Belgium and France. Then Tommo is in town during a big recruitment drive with its fevered appeal to patriotism and beating “the Hun,” and he panics when an old woman calls him a coward for not enlisting. Soon, however, he does enlist with Charlie, who says they’re 19-year-old twins to get around the fact that Tommo is only 16 and underage.
Their time in Belgium goes from the shock of seeing the walking wounded to being stuck in the trenches and, worse yet, having to venture out into no-man’s land amid the relentless shelling. Tommo describes the mud, the lice, the rats, the attacks of poisonous gas, and the dead bodies all around him, turning his cot on its side to simulate both the trenches and bobbed wire, while Jason Barnes’ sound design mimics the horrific bombing. The misery is relieved only by a little happiness at a tavern, where Tommo has his first drink and is smiled upon by a waitress.
His account culminates with the incidents leading to the execution that awaits him, a truly appalling injustice. Amid the fighting, Sgt. Hanley orders the battle-worn men to go on a surefire suicide mission, and Tommo can’t bring himself to leave his seriously wounded brother. For this, he is arrested, courtmartialed in less than an hour, and sentenced to death by firing squad.
What makes “Private Peaceful” so moving, besides O’Regan’s fine performance, is that this really happened: Soldiers, many of them shell shocked, were killed by their own side rather than the enemy. As the program notes point out: “In the First World War, between 1914 and 1918, over 290 soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies were executed by firing squad, some for desertion, some for cowardice, two for simply sleeping at their posts.”
To compound the tragedy, the men weren’t granted posthumous pardons until almost a century later, in 2006. Just thinking about this – and the fact that similar injustices still are occurring – makes me very angry.