Seen on Broadway: There are certain productions that are ideal for the century-old Belasco Theatre, which is allegedly haunted by the ghost of its impresario namesake. The time-shifting Follies, revived a few years back, was one. So was last season’s return of the period drama Awake and Sing! But I can’t think of a show better suited to its stage than its current occupant, Journey’s End. There’s something about being there that lends a perfect ambiance to R.C. Sherriff’s still-moving account of life in the trenches of France during the Great War. The playwright knew of what he wrote, in 1928—a decade earlier, he had for three years been a captain in England’s 9th East Surrey Regiment. Journey’s End is as much a piece of first-rate war reportage as it is a drama, and the audience I saw it with was completely rapt. Like the Belasco, the writing has its creaky side; like the venue as well, however, the details are finely etched, and endlessly fascinating. I never knew how to wear a helmet into battle, and never really thought about it, either, but now I do, and was pleased that the playwright took the time to explain it. Under David Grindley’s observant direction, these little things add up to a considerable whole.

The play covers six days in the life of an English regiment in their wooden confines. The activity is mostly mundane, but with a constant edge of uneasiness—a German advance is coming, and a raid is ordered. The characters, so well-drawn by Sherriff that they were doomed to become caricatures over time, emerge from their routines. Fortunately, the mostly American cast wipes the cobwebs off the materials, and stamps each one with authority—the standouts are Boyd Gaines’ sensible lieutenant, Jefferson Mays’ comical cook, John Ahlin’s plus-sized second lieutenant, and Stark Sands’ enlistee, whose education in trench existence is ours as well. In the role of the hard-drinking, war-weary captain, Britain’s Hugh Dancy makes himself at home in the army boots previously occupied by Laurence Olivier and Colin Clive in James Whale’s stage and screen versions. The action of the play proceeds, first steadily, then unnervingly, to that final confrontation with the Germans. The most shattering touch, however, is the curtain call, a stunning set piece all its own to rival the recent revival of Cabaret. Not for nothing is Journey’s End, unseen on Broadway since the Depression era, back among us in our own war-torn times.

The design is masterful. It had to be—without it, the docudrama nature of the show, revived to great acclaim in London in 2004, would be forfeit. Jonathan Fensom’s set and costumes are beyond reproach; the actors, who wear the uniforms very naturally, look as if they had stepped out of period photographs. The low-slung, claustrophobic set is a marvel of realistic construction, and is very much a character in its own right. Jason Taylor has lit it very sparsely, peppered with tiny units that are indistinguishable from the candles onstage. If even the slightest bit off his lighting would challenge eyesight but as it is it adds considerable verisimilitude to the production. The most awesome contribution comes from Gregory Clarke’s sound design, which is pin-drop quiet much of the time, then explodes—Sherriff identifies each bomb sound for us, and, at the end, hits us with a mighty cacophony, a barrage so unsettling I thought for sure the Belasco would not make it. Set-Up Scenery built the set, {Hudson Scenic provided the automation, and PRG Lighting and PRG Audio those elements.} Like Journey’s End, however, the theatre is a trouper and a survivor, and it is privileged to house one of the very best revivals of the season.—Robert Cashill