BWW Review: PRIVATE PEACEFUL at Greenhouse Theater, starring Shane O'Regan, offers a profound meditation on war through the eyes of youth
Author Michael Morpurgo (of War Horse fame) once interviewed three World War One veterans from rural England and later wrote, "There was no poetry in their stories, only horror and regret and great sadness for the loss of good friends." In PRIVATE PEACEFUL, Morpurgo captures this horror, regret, and sadness, but there is also profound poetry in his ode to the futility and injustice of war.
In Simon Reade's stage adaptation of Morpurgo's novel, we keep watch with a young British soldier, Thomas "Tommo" Peaceful, on the fateful night before he faces the firing squad for cowardice. Through a series of flashbacks, Tommo recalls his childhood in a small Devonshire village and the events that led him and his beloved elder brother, Charlie, to the hell of the Western Front.
Shane O'Regan gives an incredibly moving performance as Tommo, and his transition from wide-eyed farm boy to traumatized soldier is remarkable. Though Tommo's childhood is far from carefree, O'Regan's earnest delivery and boundless energy bring to life the simple joys of youth: running through fields, walking barefoot in mud, and spotting an airplane over his village.
This backstory of youthful innocence makes the subsequent war scenes even more painful to watch. Without giving away more of the plot, suffice to say that the terror of war is disturbingly palpable in O'Regan's performance. His haunted eyes, broken voice, and frantic gestures are emotionally draining even for the observer.
Beyond the fear, however, our young hero also displays humanity and gravity beyond his years, born out of the crucible of war. When a German prisoner prays, "Du lieber Gott," Tommo observes, "They call God by the same name." Morpurgo's writing is full of these simple yet insightful truths, uttered by a teenaged boy. The result is a quietly damning commentary on war as powerful as any of the iconic poetry of WWI.
As the emotional center of this heart-breaking play, Tommo Peaceful is a challenging role for any actor to take on. But this is a one-man show, and O'Regan plays 23 other characters as well. Mastering more than half a dozen accents and flipping between characters with astonishing agility, O'Regan has meticulously crafted Tommo's world in collaboration with director Simon Reade. Anshuman Bhatia's scenic design, which consists of a single bed that flips to serve as a trench, forms a canvas for Morpurgo's vivid writing and O'Regan's eloquent delivery to take hold of the imagination.
And they do. You can almost feel the mud of the trenches and hear the screams of the wounded. One hundred years-and countless wars-later, the poignant cry of the mass setting that closes this production echoes through history: "Kyrie eleison..." Lord, have mercy.
PRIVATE PEACEFUL plays through November 11 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, IL 60614. Tickets are available at 773.404.7336 or www.greenhousetheater.org.
Review by Emily McClanathan
Photo credit: Ahron R. Foster