Theater Review: PRIVATE PEACEFUL (Greenhouse Theater Center in Chicago and on tour)

by Lawrence Bommer on October 22, 2018

in Theater-Chicago,Tours

TRENCH STAGEFARE

It’s a small-scale marvel, a feat to treasure: In only 80 minutes director/adaptor Simon Reade and performer Shane O’Regan do total justice to Private Peaceful, Michael Morpurgo’s 2003 anti-war novel for older children. Not to be missed at Chicago’s Greenhouse Theater Center, it’s an enthralling achievement, this solo reenactment of childhood, peace, coming of age, unrequited love, 24 seminal characters, war, and even death, consummately illustrated by Anshuman Bhatia with trenchant sound design by Jason Barnes. (A feature film was released in 2012.)

From the author of War Horse, another cautionary World War I epic, comes a soldier’s story that stands for millions. It speaks more than sermons or speeches against the insanity of battle and the fraud of heroism. Growing up before our eyes from the innocent escapades of country life in Devonshire to the killing fields and trenches of Flanders, this irrepressibly alive Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful (an actual name that Morpurgo saw in a wartime cemetery outside Ypres) is every bit as vibrant as Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. O’Regan, a young Irish actor, delivers the goods as honestly, immediately, and believably as possible.

First seen stewing in a cell in Poperinge (or “Pops” as the British soldiers called it), Tommo — awaiting sunrise and execution for alleged cowardice — takes us back to school day frolics with his wonderful big brother Charlie and their somewhat shared girlfriend Molly. (The oldest brother “Big Joe” can’t join the fun because he suffered brain damage at birth.)

With a combination of child’s play (pun intended) and adult disillusionment, Tommo faithfully recounts incidents that comprise his farewell novel: All but indentured to the local squire, his father dies trying to save him from a falling tree. Meals are instantly inadequate. But there are larks to love in the village of Iddesleigh: nocturnal poaching; discovering special urges through skinny-dipping; defying their great aunt “Wolfwoman”; singing their theme song “Oranges and Lemons”; and seeing the first airplane ever, then giving the frazzled pilot correct directions. Then there’s discovering that Charlie and Molly were really a couple, with a baby to show for it.

The children hear talk of an assassination of an archduke in the Balkans but pay no attention to this silly story and resume their play. But a fearsome recruitment speech in the town square of Hatherleigh by a stentorian sergeant-major stirs up war fever masquerading as patriotism in young candidates for cannon fodder. (“It’s no picnic,” he declares, and a warning becomes an enticement.) The brothers undergo the basest of basic training and head off to Belgium. (Tommo at 16 is three years below the minimum age.) Necessarily, they’re unprepared for the horrors to come.

Bewildered by very foreign environs (he calls Ypres “Wipers”), this teenage warrior finds himself in a world of hurt from all directions, his only comfort his brave brother and a beloved watch that “Tommo” will treasure till the end on his long last night of life.

Conveying the visceral terror of the front, Tommo contrasts it with the equal ferocity of the boorish brute Sergeant “Horrible” Hanley. A master of make-believe until his early end, O’Regan’s captive flips a bed over: The exposed springs instantly depict barbed wire. There are rats, lice, mud, and, far worse, mustard gas to contend with. And for protecting his brother in “No Man’s Land” another brother pays with his life, one of 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers, many victims of PTSD, who were executed for cowardice, desertion, or sleeping on watch. (In 2006 they were posthumously pardoned.)

Throughout Morpurgo’s galvanic extremes of blissful infancy and an adult nightmare beyond the depths of hell, O’Regan — athletic, engaged, always in the moment — rivets us with unimprovable authenticity in voice, expression, timing, and movement. A performance more charged with life and love cannot be imagined and might be too much to take.

Alas, it’s not — no more than Word War I was — the monologue to end all wars. And, for sure, “it’s no picnic.” Joy and agony have seldom been so crushed together. Most crucially, Private Peaceful speaks beyond the carnage of a century ago. This private’s plight is repeated daily in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and in our home front too.

photos by Ahron R. Foster

Private Peaceful
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave.
Wed-Fri at 7:30; Sat at 3 & 7:30; Sun at 3
ends on November 11, 2018
for tickets ($40 to $45) call 773-404-7336 or visit Greenhouse
for more info, visit Private Peaceful

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