There are times you’re acutely aware that while yes, you’ve faced hardships, you’ve also led a life of privilege simply by having a roof over your head and a bed to sleep in. All Quiet on the Western Front razor sharpens that realization in scene after scene, numbing you with war’s relentlessness in just two hours, a microcosm of life for the play’s German soldiers of B Company. They head off to World War I as jovial, adventure-seeking youths only to die or be aged in time-lapse by war’s atrocities.
All Quiet on the Western Front marks the inaugural production of Prime Stage’s 21st season as they continue their rich tradition of bringing literature to life on the stage. Impressively, this is also the play’s U.S. premiere. It was adapted for the stage by Robin Kingsland from Erich Maria Remarque’s famed 1929 novel of the same title, a novel that was subsequently banned by the Nazi party.
Despite the World War I setting, the play’s main characters are not heroes. They are boys persuaded by patriotism. The lure of wartime adventure proves more tantalizing than their humdrum, small-town life. The play starts with a metal door noisily rumbling up, and you hear the soon-to-be soldiers singing before you see them roll onto the stage aboard a large cart. The door’s sound is jarring, and director Scott Calhoon brilliantly uses the disconcerting sound to foreshadow the more jarring sounds of war ahead. You feel the anticipation and bursting eagerness of youth as they spill out onto the stage. The main character, Paul Baumer (Connor McNelis), an aspiring poet and lepidopterist, aptly describes the boys as “coiled shoots under the earth.”
The utter arbitrariness of war is a recurring theme. There are no playing favorites on the battlefield. The town’s champion gymnast, Franz, almost immediately loses a leg and dies slowly post-amputation. Projection designer Joe Spinogatti thoughtfully utilizes subtle projections of a wartime hospital floor in the background. They remind us that while we trace Franz’s story, he is one in a sea of many. But war also makes one an opportunist, even as one realizes the contemptibility of it. With supplies already in short order, Franz’s hometown compadres whisper bedside and contemplate taking his nice boots. They rationalize he won’t need them, and besides, they’ll just get taken by an officer. Paul ends up witnessing Franz’s death alone and walks away, then scurries back for the boots. McNelis never shies away from authentically conveying Paul’s struggles and sorrows. His face collapses with pain as he furtively departs, hugging the boots to his chest, both token and tear-stained battlefield advantage.
Normalcy proves to be an ever-shifting bar. The scene with the boots is at the war’s start. Later, the remaining men of B Company slip on blood and blown-up body parts as they scramble for shelter post-bombardment. In fellowship, they review the spoils each accumulated, including corned beef and cognac. One man casually breaks off a blood-spattered chunk of French bread. It’s grisly, but the shared sustenance and palpable relief in realizing the majority of their community has returned alive create a lightness amidst the gore. The four bottles of cognac were pilfered by the Company’s de facto leader, 40-year old Stanislaus “Kat” Katczinsky (Stefan Lingenfelter). Lingenfelter plays Kat with heart, a sort of gruff papa bear complete with 5 o’clock shadow who, like the others, is civilian turned soldier. Father-like, he puts the needs of his charges first, slyly conjuring up food and supplies when others can’t. As they move towards shelter, gripping their spoils, the actors keep their eyes forward and move as if they are walking over waves, shaking off the almost-dead who claw at their ankles crying for help. Thanks to Calhoon’s careful direction, it’s as if we see those ghosts in the elegant, grisly dance steps of the soldiers that leave you raw and aching.
Scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach’s towering set is an omnipresent reminder that the individual is minuscule in war, but the boxes the boys sit astride on the cart ride in the opening scene are Bohach’s masterpiece. They smoothly transform to classroom chairs, then take on a darker tone. After the boys sign up for war, Calhoon exchanges their casual poses for military postures as they face each other in two straight rows. The boxes too stand erect on their ends, revealing straps and becoming backpacks. Uniforms are pulled from a hole in the center, and the boys slip them on over their regular clothes, reminding us soldier is just a thin layer over their civilian identity. The boxes later morph again, laying flat in a circle, holes up, becoming toilets the soldiers race to after a potent wartime dinner of beans, and they laugh at their comfort with communal crapping. The ever-elusive bar of normalcy has shifted once again.
As I walked back to my car after the show, a nearly full moon hung low in the sky, and the cool night air stung my nose. In one scene, a new recruit is crazed for fresh air after weeks of bombardment in covered trenches. The crispness of the night air seemed magnified after the play, and I felt as if I needed to breathe more deeply, finding the air they couldn’t. I shivered, registering that I should have brought a warmer jacket, yet almost immediately chided myself for the thought; it felt selfish after hearing the “grim music of the shells” and watching such suffering. Theatre has the power to help us both confront our humanity and connect with humanity. Breathe deeply for those who can’t, and don’t miss All Quiet on the Western Front.
All Quiet on the Western Front plays through November 12th at the New Hazlett Theater. To reserve tickets and for more information, click here.