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Private Peaceful

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

Private Peaceful

Shane O'Regan in Private Peaceful
Photo by Tom Lawler

The eyes, blue, innocent and frightened, stare out from under a World-War I helmet, impossibly young, a contradictory message of youth threatened by destruction.  Adapted and directed by Simon Reade (Journey's End) from the award-winning young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo (War Horse), Private Peaceful comes to New York's TGM Mainstage in this centennial year of the end of World War I.  

You get everything you need as in this play from the stage when you enter the theater, a small cot, a man lying on it and your imagination.  In this one-man play, lPrivate Peaceful, Thomas "Tommo" Peaceful, powerfully played by Shane O'Regan, relates the poignant story of his wartime sacrifice, driven by boundless energy and candor of youth.  He is nearly 18 years old and his is the story of the many shell-shocked doughboys in World War I, having lived through fear with rats, lice, relentless rain, and the cloud of gas before they were declared cowards, and court-martialed and shot. 

Private Peaceful has been staged in London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and at 59E59's Brits Off Broadway series in 2006.  O'Regan began touring Ireland as Tommo in this production last year.  He begins the play, jumping up from the cot, frightened, exhausted and determined to stay awake on what we learn is his last day.  He is to be shot at dawn.  He wants to remember everything that made up  his short life, particularly brother, Charlie, three years older, their closeness, their adventures, their love, and their lives, both cut short in the brutal trench wars.  "Tonight, more than any other night of my life, I want to feel alive!"

With Reade's direction, O'Regan uses the space of the stage will full physicality, leaping and rolling around like an 8-year-old boy and later, his thin face thoughtful as he tries to understand what he is still too difficult for him.  He brings alive the joys and sorrows of a country childhood in rural England, a strong father who was the unlikely fatal victim of a falling tree, and his older brother, Joe, who had learning difficulties.  To Tommo, however, the most important was Charlie. 

They shared their young years, Charlie taking him by the hand to school the first fearful day.  Even when they met Molly, whom they both loved, they included her in their lives.  Molly had helped young Tommo tie his shoelaces and the three went hunting together for fish and rabbits to boost their potato diet. They saw their first airplane together.  And then later, she fell in love with Charlie. Tommo was hurt and felt left out, although the couple tolerated the boy and let him join them. That ended naturally, when Molly got pregnant and she and Charlie married. 

Physically and emotionally, O'Regan effortlessly inhabits the roles of 24 characters, Charlie, Molly, the older brother, Joe, some town eccentrics and military officers.  There is a Hun who urges him to run from the gas and the hated Sgt. Hanley who warns Tommo of the consequences of breaking orders.  There is the toothless hag at a military parade in town calling Tommo, then 15, a coward for not joining the marching soldiers.  Long after, her crackling voice races through his brain even after he had enlisted and left for Europe to face endless horrors.  Tommo did not have the inner confidence and maturity to explore his decisions although he was probably destined to follow his brother when Charlie enlisted. 

Perceptive and showing the boundless alacrity of youth, O'Regan evokes the earnest essence of Tommo, a loving little boy trailing his big brother, Charlie, a pouting teen when Molly, the girl he loves, marries Charlie, and finally, the innate strength he shows, choosing loyalty to the wounded Charlie and refusing to leave his brother's side even in the face of sure court-martial.  He has learned the cruel lessons of war.  With a maturity learned too slowly and too early, he is as ready for the consequences as could be expected, an hour-long court martial, "One hour for a man’s life."

Anshuman Bhatia's dramatically spare setting is heightened by his lighting design, and the cot on stage through the play is turned on its side as a trench.  Jason Barnes's sound designs adds the terrifying bursts of war, relentless rain, passing time, some noises outside surrounding him, others already silent and menacing in his mind. 

Young men off to war is not a new story.  Nor is the choice of knowing instinctively what is right and moral, even in war, or following orders.  Yet Shane O'Regan's cocksure perceptive of Tommo gives a powerful reminder of war's horrors.  Barely out of childhood, Tommo never knew he was a hero, but was doing what he knew in his belly was the right thing, staying with his wounded brother and paying the price. 

Private Peaceful

Pemberley Productions and Ireland’s Verdant Productions
TBG Mainstage Theatre
12 - West 36 Street, New York, NY
Previews: Aug 28, 2018. Opening: Sept. 6, 2018. Closing: Oct. 7, 2018
Running time: 85 minutes.  No intermission.
Cast: Shane O’Regan
Playwright: Michael Morpurgo
Directed: J Simon Reade 

Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
September 2018 

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