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Hell Above

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A band of March twilight sky is tinged a lurid green by the enemy's flares. We're in no-man's-land, that 100-yard patch of broken, scorched earth separating the Allies from the Germans on the western front during World War I in R.C. Sherriff's Journey's End. Acrid smoke blows by in wisps that might be beautiful if not for the fact that they could contain lung-searing phosgene gas. A ruined tree is all that remains of nature, while the length of a rugby field is all that measures life from death in the dank trenches. A muffled boom rumbles in the distance, and a shell explodes nearby, rattling the underground fortifications and dislodging a stream of dirt upon the British officers huddled around their meager dinner. One of them snatches the map from the table and catches the falling dirt before it mixes with his tea. Below hell on earth, life goes on.

Impeccably produced and directed, superbly cast and acted, the Alley Theatre's cinematic production of this rarely seen classic is magnificent in every way. Without any qualification whatever, it ranks as one of their finest achievements.

Part documentary and part well-made play, Sherriff's unflinching look at the "war to end all wars" was written in 1928, a decade after the armistice. The work is based upon the playwright's own wartime experiences in the trenches, and the picture he paints is harrowing, even with its focus on chivalry and honor in the face of abominable horror.


Journey's End

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-228-8421.

Through March 19. $36-$55.

Supported by rough wooden beams, sand bags and barbed wire, the infantry officers' claustrophobic underground bunker retains a semblance of civilization amid this nightmarish, surreal world of flying shrapnel, nibbling rats, disfiguring wounds and crumbling psyches. Valor and courage, precious commodities, are not easily won, but a good cup of tea - even if it tastes of onions because the cook doesn't have soap and water to wash out last night's dinner pan - sets things right, if only for the moment. And if you survive the moment, you can tick it off with one of the circles Second Lieutenant Trotter (Jeffrey Bean) has drawn around the edges of an old newspaper as he counts down the hours until the big offensive.

Ritual, class and rank keep these soldiers going. Appearances keep them sane. They dry their always-damp socks over candles, smoke pipes, play the gramophone, brag about French tarts and bitch about the food. They talk about anything at all, just to keep the hellish outside at bay. Trotter keeps a picture of his prized hollyhocks in his pocket. Lieutenant Osborne (James Black), the venerable old man everyone calls "uncle," comforts himself by reading Lewis Carroll. The cook, Private Mason (Noble Shropshire), always has a sarcastic put-down for the constant bickering about tinned apricots or the mystery-meat concoction he calls "cutlet."

Three years in the trenches, young Captain Stanhope (Mark Shanahan) is "doped with whiskey"; it helps him screw up his courage, forget the dead and make it through another moment. Respected by his fellow officers and loved by his men, Stanhope is falling apart piece by piece. When his schoolmate Raleigh (Joe Delafield) gets assigned to the company, Stanhope fears that his friend's overidealized image of him will be irreparably damaged. But the big offensive is coming, and there's little time to think about that now.

Stanhope attempts reason with his superior, the Colonel (James Belcher), but he's powerless to stop the sure-suicide raid on the enemy lines. "It's a damned nuisance," the Colonel barks, "but necessary." The men on the lines are cannon fodder, but if they stand steadfast, the enemy might lose more. And all this for a few feet of western front that will probably be lost by next week, with the Brits pushed back to where they started.

When mud-splattered Second Lieutenant Hibbert (Avery Clark) stumbles into the bunker, he's physically sick and mentally unbalanced by the war's terrors above, and pleads to be sent to hospital. Stanhope calls him a "worm" for trying to wriggle out of his duty, but later comforts Hibbert by confessing his own paralyzing fear. Doing your duty, even through fear, is "the only thing a decent man can do," Stanhope says quietly.

Sherriff's play finds no hero in any one character - the entire infantry company is our hero, and the exceptional ensemble cast meshes brilliantly under artistic director Gregory Boyd's subtle, muscular direction. Shanahan expertly depicts Stanhope's alcohol-induced outbursts, which contrast with the quiet, masculine dignity of Black's former schoolmaster. Bean's Cockney everyman has unplumbed reserves of feeling, while Clark's Hibbert displays a panic that's absolutely understandable. And Delafield's naivetee parallels Shropshire's perfect vaudeville timing and dry inflection.

The play ends during the big offensive's bombardment, as if the war itself had cut it short. Young Raleigh has been shot, and his body brought down from the trenches. In a striking coup de theatre, the bunker entombs him, while above, the soldiers stand over the site as silent sentinels, still as gravestones. They are testament to war's brutality, but they're also simple, common men who must wage war and find within themselves their better angels.

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