Misdirecting the Troupe | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Misdirecting the Troupe 

Writers Theatre gives Nick Whitby's acclaimed antiwar play its North American premiere, but Kate Buckley's interpretation doesn't do the script justice.

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To the Green Fields and Beyond

Writers' Theatre

One sure sign that a conflict is going badly is that people start comparing it to World War I. During the Vietnam era a comic book called "Weird War" showed how a boy thrilled by his dead grandfather's exploits as a WWI flying ace learned the hard truths of battle after a single night in the cockpit with grandpa's ghost. His initial excitement gave way to terror as the plane plunged toward the ground and the old man delivered the moral: "War isn't glamorous. Go back to your bed now, Timmy, while I do what all soldiers are sent to do--WE DI-I-I-I-E-E-E-E!" And indeed he did, in a blaze of tempera.

As the situation in Iraq goes from appalling to abysmal, it's no surprise to find the war to end all wars turning up onstage with increasing frequency. To the Green Fields Beyond at Writers' Theatre is the third show here in three months to address the subject, after This Happy Breed at TimeLine and Noble Fool's Underneath the Lintel, which takes as its theme the doughboys' refrain "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here. . . ."

This is the first North American production of Nick Whitby's play, first staged by London's Donmar Warehouse in 2000. It's a subtle, acutely observed, intellectually rigorous work that makes the waste of war plain. On the eve of battle on the western front, a handpicked British tank crew takes drugs, gets laid, debates the clash of reason and duty, and considers the role of human beings in a mechanized world. But despite a number of strong performances and a few stunning moments, particularly when the crew mimes the tank's operation to a chant that's equal parts funeral lament and football cheer, in director Kate Buckley's hands Whitby's muscular script lies flaccid. The problem is that while Whitby wrote a play about Armageddon, Buckley directed one about Agincourt.

Because of a misplaced touchy-feely emphasis on the unit's cohesion, this production plays like a movie about an entirely different war--one of those World War II epics where the demographic mix is precisely calculated. Whitby's crew includes an Oxbridge man, a Scot, a Sikh, a black man from the Caribbean, and a virginal replacement from the Lake District who hasn't quite figured out which end of the prostitute to address. Add the arrogant American so beloved of English writers, here (as in Lawrence of Arabia) a bloodthirsty reporter representing the disgusting civilians for whom the brothers shed their blood, and the plot's arc becomes a foregone conclusion.

Pleasant as it is to watch loyalty flourish among disparate men, particularly in the performances of Scott Haden and Jason Vizza as friends with irreconcilable views, this version of To the Green Fields Beyond tells rather than shows us that this is an elite group confronting unique pangs of conscience. It should be a pivotal, heartbreaking moment when the soldiers finally roll a die to determine the group's fate, but here it barely registers--it's just another meaningless stop on the way to the end. That may be Whitby's point, but it's better to illustrate futility than make the audience feel it.

When: Through 4/3: Tue-Fri 8 PM, Sat 5 and 8 PM, Sun 2:30 and 6 PM

Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe

Price: $45-$55

Info: 847-242-6000

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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