Meet the Men in the Trenches of Broadway's Journey's End

News   Meet the Men in the Trenches of Broadway's Journey's End Audiences will undoubtedly relate the upcoming Broadway revival of Journey's End to the current conflict in Iraq. But the director David Grindley said at a Jan. 10 press event that while current events make R.C. Sherriff's 1929 play more potent, the play is not agitprop, anti-war theatre.

From Top: Director David Grindley; Boyd Gaines and Hugh Dancy; Stark Sands and Jefferson Mays.
From Top: Director David Grindley; Boyd Gaines and Hugh Dancy; Stark Sands and Jefferson Mays. Photo by Aubrey Reuben

"It asks the general question, 'Surely there must be a better way to conduct human affairs,'" Grindley told Playbill.com, but "it's not making a strident message."

The play, based on Sheriff's own experiences in the First World War, is about a group of British soldiers living together in a cramped trench in France while fighting the last great German offensive in March 1918.

Grindley — who also directed the successful 2004 London revival — explained that the play is more about the relationships and tension among the men with whom Sherriff served, many of whom were killed. "This is his commemoration of them," Grindley said.

Hugh Dancy, who plays the lead role of Stanhope, said the play does relate to the current conflict in some specific ways.

In the late stages of the war, when the play takes place, he said, "people didn't really know any more what they were fighting for, they just knew they had to keep fighting. Their loyalty was to the guy next to them, not to a bigger ideal, really." "And I think that's increasingly true of the conflict we're in now," he adds. "Not everybody would agree with me, but the outline of why people are there and what we're trying to achieve is becoming increasingly blurred."

In separate interviews at the preview, the lead actors of Journey's End — which begins previews Feb. 8 and opens Feb 22 at the Belasco Theatre — spoke to Playbill.com about their personal connections to the play.

Jefferson Mays, who plays Mason, the cook, has waited his whole career to appear in Journey's End.

"I'm not one of those actors who has a laundry list of roles that I want to do or plays that I wanted to do," he said. "This is the one exception."

"I dare say, it's my favorite play," he adds. "I think it made me want to become an actor."

As a kid, Mays was a bit of an anglophile, and played with his father's World War I toy soldiers. He then saw Journey's End in a production at the Long Wharf Theater in 1978.

"I was reduced to adolescent sobs at the end of it, and came back and saw it a second time with my father," he said. "It deeply, deeply affected me. For Christmas that year I got a first edition of it, and I've read it every year ever since. I still don't know my lines, for some reason."

Mays is also happy to be out of his I Am My Own Wife dress, which he wore for four years. He performed regionally, on Broadway and internationally in the one-man play about a transvestite, and won a Tony Award for it.

"It's a welcome change," he said. "I'm so glad to be playing with other children."

The three-time Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines, who plays Lieutenant Osborne, also has a past connection to the play. As a young actor, while taking a design class, he had to design a set and costumes for a play and chose Journey's End, which he had read in high school.

"I just remember that it was very brown," he said of his set. "And I'm sure one of the reasons I chose [the play] was because it was a unit set."

The play is Gaines' third consecutive all-male cast — after Twelve Angry Men and Bach at Leipzig. Gaines said that in each of the shows, the dressing room chatter matches the play itself.

During Twelve Angry Men, a play about the legal system set in New York City, Gaines said, "There was so much talk about the city and how it works and the different types of personalities you encounter, the legal system." With Bach, which was about music, religion and philosophy in the 18th century, the discussion was more "What are you reading?"

And at Journey's End, so far? "We’re talking about the war," he said.

Stark Sands, who plays the 18-year-old Raleigh, has appeared on screen in works such as "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Six Feet Under," but Journey's End is his first professional theatre gig.

In the play, his character happens to be placed into the same company as the protagonist, Stanhope, who was his older friend and idol when he was a boy, but who has been away in battle for three years.

"I can't tell you how many parallels there are with my life," he said. "I just moved to a new place" — to New York temporarily from L.A., where he's lived since college — "I'm starting on a journey that's I've never done before, this is the biggest thing I've ever done, I'm working with people I look up to and all I want to do is make them proud."

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Also starring in Journey's End are John Ahlin, Nick Berg Barnes, John Behlmann, Justin Blanchard, Kieran Campion, John Curless and Richard Poe.

The design team for the play includes Jonathan Fensom (scenic and costume design), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Gregory Clarke (sound).

Boyett/Ostar Productions, Stephanie McClelland, Bill Rollnick, James D'Orta and Philip Geier are producing.

The play premiered on Broadway in 1929 and ran 485 performances. It was revived for a short Broadway run in 1939.

The Belasco Theatre is at 111 West 44th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. For tickets call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit www.telecharge.com.

The company of <i>Journey's End</i> meets the press.
The company of Journey's End meets the press. Photo by Aubrey Reuben