Shane O'Regan in Private
Peaceful.(c) Ahron R. Foster
destruction and horrors of war – and in this particular case, World War I, the
catastrophe erroneously labeled “the war to end all wars” -- have been well
documented. But when the focus is narrowed down to show the impact on one
relatable human being, it all becomes worth the retelling.
what’s accomplished in the 80 minutes or so that Irish actor Shane O’Regan
magnetically holds the stage in the one-person drama Private Peaceful.
The script is based on the 2003 young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, whose
other works include War Horse, widely known for both its theatrical
version and the Steven Spielberg-directed film.
adaptation of Private Peaceful by Simon Reade premiered in 2004 at the
Bristol Old Vic and has proven itself in various mountings throughout the UK.
Reade also wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film and directed this current
production, which began touring in Ireland last year.
brings the title character, whose full name is Tommo Peaceful, to vibrant,
often ebullient life. There are also sharply drawn sketches of a gallery of
other folks who come into the brief span of his days.
audience enters the theater, Tommo is seen in semi-darkness lying on a bunk,
which together with an abstract backdrop are the only pieces of scenery. When
he sits up, it’s evident that he’s inordinately conscious of the time.
“I have the
whole night ahead of me,” he says. “I shan’t sleep. I won’t dream it away… I’ve
had nearly eighteen years of yesterdays and tomorrows, and tonight I must
remember as many of them as I can.”
And indeed he
does, sharing them vividly with the audience. He starts with his childhood in England’s farm country. An early trauma is the death of his father, who worked as a
forester for the area’s wealthy and pompous landowner. There are times darkened
by the rigor and unjustness of a strict and class-conscious society. Yet there
are also idyllic days shared with his loving and protective older brother
Charlie and the young woman Molly, who has both of them in her thrall and e eventually
When the war
comes, a conscience-stricken Charlie decides to join the army. “I’ve seen the
lists in the paper – y’know, all the killed and the wounded…,” he says. “It
hardly seems right, does it: me being here, enjoying life, while they’re over
there.” And when he does sign up, the underage Tommo is at his side, with the
two pretending they are twins.
arrive at the war’s front in Belgium, the early enemies – rather than the Germans
or “Fritz” as they are called -- are the rats, the lice and the unending rain
flooding the trenches. But the battles and bombardments begin, with both
brothers finding themselves in acts that are filled with fear, gallantry and
service, But eventually, as Tommo relates his story, we learn that he is to
face a firing squad at dawn. He has been found guilty of “cowardice in the face
of the enemy” for refusing to participate in a suicidal attack in broad
daylight, unwilling to leave the fatally wounded Charlie behind. With a big
offensive push in the works, Tommo feels his fate is being used as an example
to keep the troops in line.
of Tommo’s history is filled with grandly realized set pieces that O’Regan
glides seamlessly in and out of, with just a quick change in costume or shift
in voice and posture. Among them: Tommo’s first day at school when he meets
Molly who teaches him how to lace up his boots; his first knowledge of the war
when he hears the seductive spiel of a recruiting officer who has come to round
up troops in a rural village; the nighttime mission when Charlie and Tommo
accompany an officer to capture a prisoner and bring him back to gain
information, and the grotesque effects of a poison gas attack.
Even with the
occasional exuberant athleticism of the performance, however, little smacks of
an actorly tour de force. While his rural English dialect may take some getting
used to, in O’Regan’s hands, Tommo becomes an actual person desperate to
recount the days of his life and the value of them before they end in an unjust
death. And with O’Regan’s intensity, Reade’s staging, Anshuman Bhatia’s
lighting design and Jason Barnes’ sound, the trenches and the battlefields
become a virtual reality.
Peaceful is more than a reminder of the nightmares of war. It also is an
affirmation of the worth of life, and yes, even the life of one ordinary
country boy turned soldier before his time.
the TBG Mainstage Theatre
312 West 36th