Shane O’Regan stars in “Private Peaceful.” | Ahron R. Foster Photo

Deeply moving ‘Private Peaceful’ makes plain one soldier’s torment

SHARE Deeply moving ‘Private Peaceful’ makes plain one soldier’s torment
SHARE Deeply moving ‘Private Peaceful’ makes plain one soldier’s torment

Shane O’Regan, the young Irish actor who shoulders the entirety of the storytelling in the solo play “Private Peaceful,” gives a performance that’s nothing short of remarkable. It makes you wish more care had been shown to the story O’Regan’s been given to tell.

“Private Peaceful” is adapted from a book by the British children’s author Michael Morpurgo. The prolific writer, with more than 100 published works, often uses historical settings in his novels for young readers. He’s likely best known in the U.S. for 1982’s “War Horse,” which became a smash hit on the London stage about a decade ago, won the Tony Award for best play upon transferring to Broadway, and was also adapted for the screen by Steven Spielberg, earning an Oscar nomination for best picture.

‘Private Peaceful’ ★★★ When: Through November 11 Where: Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Tickets: $40 – $45 Info: Run time: 1 hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission

Like “War Horse,” “Private Peaceful” is set against the horrors of World War I. Our narrator, Thomas “Tommo” Peaceful, occupies a lonely cell. A British soldier who lied about his young age to follow his beloved older brother Charlie into service, he reveals — rather too late into the play’s 90-minute running time — that he faces execution in the morning by his own fellow soldiers, having been court martialed on a charge of cowardice in the field. Now Tommo is counting down the minutes until he meets his fate— and as he does so, his “nearly 18 years of yesterdays and tomorrows” flash before his, and our, eyes.

It may seem as though he plans to recount his life’s every event. Equal time is given to Tommo’s first day of school as to his father’s accidental death, which he feels he could have prevented. His father’s funeral, a first fight at school and Tommo and Charlie’s first-ever sighting of an airplane carry the same weight in the retelling as learning to tie his boots.

The latter moment, at least, can be partially explained by the involvement of the play’s third major character, Molly, a schoolmate two years older than Tommo. She’s instantly the object of Tommo’s affection, but as the children age, Molly grows closer to Charlie — the only source of friction we see between the confident Charlie and his hero-worshiping younger brother.

And then we’re midway through the play’s 90-minute running time when the war is finally mentioned. After hearing a recruitment-drive speech in the town square — in which Morpurgo nicely captures the manipulative messaging of military rallying — Tommo, though still just 15, feels goaded into proving his bravery by shipping off with the also-underage Charlie.

O’Regan, of course, is tasked with conveying all of this, and he does so with astonishing energy and fluidity. The precision and ease with which he swaps dialects and physicalities to embody a total of 24 characters is a sight to behold.

The actor has been performing “Private Peaceful” for some time, touring the piece across Ireland beginning in 2017 before embarking on the limited U.S. tour that brings him to the Greenhouse Theater Center now. His depth of engagement with his character, or rather characters, is readily apparent. What’s more, his proficiency isn’t merely flashy technical mastery. His Tommo contains palpable life, soul and, eventually, terror.

And the piece’s minimalist physical staging lets O’Regan provide all the bells and whistles on his own. Scenic and lighting designer Anshuman Bhatia leaves the black stage bare apart from a narrow bed frame and a simply painted backdrop, letting his strikingly shifting lights and sound designer Jason Barnes’s evocative audio amplify O’Regan’s presence. It’s a thrilling reminder of what can be accomplished on stage with little more than the connection between an actor and an audience.

Yet for all the pleasures of O’Regan’s work, there’s something frustratingly off in the rhythm of the script itself. Adapter and director Simon Reade has a clear affinity for both Morpurgo and the Great War; in addition to this solo piece, he’s adapted four other Morpurgo books for the stage, wrote a TV version of “Private Peaceful” for the BBC, and penned last year’s big-screen adaptation of another harrowing WWI story, R.C. Sherriff’s 1928 play “Journey’s End.”

In this version of “Peaceful,” though, Reade strikes an uneasy balance between the sentimentality of Tommo’s familiar coming-of-age in the play’s first half and the war-is-hell assault of the second. Perhaps that’s his intent, as one of Morpurgo’s clear themes is the absurdity and futility of war. (And Reade stacks the deck in making one crucial change to the book’s plot that makes the ending twice as dark.) Regardless, the pacing across both halves of the story feels a little rushed. But O’Regan’s intensely gripping work is truly wonderful to watch.

Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.

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