The trenches of World War I have long grown over with grass or been filled with earth carried in place by a century of erosion of their makeshift walls. But their legacy remains in the sparks of radical nationalism around Europe.
The horrific “war to end all wars” did not hold to its naive promise to make conflict obsolete. The millions of deaths were in vain. Soldiers knew that then, but they went “over the top” of the trenches to their certain death anyway. It was their duty, so they did it.
Centerstage is premiering “For All That” - written by Artistic Director Alan Bryce and directed by Eleanor Rhode – which tells their story with a hauntingly beautiful score and masterfully simple staging.
Every name on the playbill, from the actors to the starkly used light by designer (Christina Barrigan) to the stage designer (Craig Wollam) to the costumer (Janessa Styck) to the choreographer (Amy Johnson) gave their full measure to craft the original play.
The play follows the lives of a group of friends on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis just as war dawns to call the Seaforth Highlanders to the service of “king and country.”
One Highlander, Donald (played by Cooper Harris-Turner) even leaves as night falls on his wedding night to Mairi (Katherine Jett). Only his brother – Andrew, played by Joshua Williamson - remains behind as a conscientious objector, making him a social pariah in the farming village void of young men.
The duty-bound men are quickly trained about trench warfare, with focuses on hand-to-hand combat and how to twist a bayonet to free it from the chest of its victim. The drill sergeant breaks them down to then piece them back together to become efficiently patriotic death machines. The newly minted soldiers itch for a fight.
Then battle comes at the Somme, France in 1916. Soldiers are called to leap from their trenches only to fall before machine gun fire. England lost 60,000 soldiers in a single day. The battle lasted more than four months. More than a million lives were lost. Some 70,000 simply vanished from the Earth, nothing of their bodies remained during the weeks upon weeks of shelling.
If a soldier’s body remained intact, their minds did not, giving the world the term “shell shock.” Malcolm (Randall Scott Carpenter) is one Highlander so afflicted and pays for his “ailment” with his life at the trigger fingers of a firing squad after he refuses to go “over the top” one more time after having to kill a German soldier face to face during a trench fight.
The war ends and no man return, leaving their wives and family to rebuild their shattered lives and find meaning in the meaninglessness of battle.
Each story, from blissfulness of farm life to the challenges of training to the fear caused by battle to the jubilation of marking survival with a visit to Paris to the sole death of a mortally wounded soldier to the personal pilgrimage a war widow in search of purpose she hopes to find at her husband’s unmarked grave hits its make courtesy of an amazing collection of period-inspired songs. The music (by John Forster and Joshua Zimmerman) covers the spectrum of emotions borne from war.
“For All That” is part musical love story, part war diary and part historical tome. It’s as if “All’s Quiet on the Western Front” and “Cabaret” had a gothic love child. It’s dark. It’s beautiful. It’s gut turning. It’s spellbinding. It’s simple. It’s ponderous. It’s complex. It raises unanswerable questions while brilliantly avoiding to provide conclusions. Audiences are simply churched through the emotional meat grinder and left to their own thoughts as the curtain falls.
This is a must-see show if such an absolute statement exists.
“For All That,” by Alan Bryce and John Forster, runs at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and at 2 p.m. on Sundays through May 24. Special Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. are set for May 16 and May 23 at Centerstage Theatre, at Dumas Bay Center, 3200 SW Dash Point Road in Federal Way. Each show has an author talk one hour before opening, which is well worth the early arrival. Tickets at $10 for children, $25 for military and students and $30 for general admission. Call (253) 661-1444 or visit centerstagetheatre.com for more information or for tickets.