Right at the beginning of the excellent one-actor play, Private Peaceful, you see that Shane O’Regan will not simply be playing the central character Tommo, a wide-eyed English lad, the son of a forester who eventually goes to fight in the trenches of France in World War I.
This powerful play has been cleverly and movingly adapted and directed by Simon Reade, from Michael Morpurgo’s 2003 novel for older children. (Morpurgo also wrote the novel of War Horse, which was also adapted into a hugely successful theatrical project, and later a film.) Morpurgo was inspired by the gravestone of a real-life soldier who died in World War I.
Private Peaceful comes to America after touring the U.K., playing first in New York, and later Chicago. Private Peaceful was also made into a movie in 2012, with many actors playing the characters that O’Regan so impressively, and with a commanding humility, takes on.
Besides Tommo, the slight and handsome O'Regan plays 23 other characters, from Tommo’s beloved older brother Charlie to the girl, Molly, they both fall in love with, to Sergeant Hanley, a sadistic army commanding officer who immeasurably adds to both siblings’ trauma and hardship when they head off to fight in Ypres.
O’Regan, whose voice and bearing convincingly crosses genders and classes, plays Tommo as a sweet, yokel innocent. He grows up in Devon, his family already in service to the local landowner; and Tommo stays in service to others the whole of his life. His sense of duty is unwavering whether to his father, mother, Molly, the army, and ultimately Charlie. He will not lie, he will not do the wrong thing, and this eventually leads to the crystallization of his own fate.
The nature of Tommo’s tragedy is unexpected, but it is there in the title of the play. ‘Peaceful’ is Tommo’s family surname, and it encapsulates their spirit; Tommo is a private both as a soldier and as someone known only to himself, as narrated to us. The play is his confessional. His name is his nature. It should also, in a more just world, be his saving grace.
The play’s setting may lead you to imagine one awful destiny for Tommo, but Morpurgo gives him an even more awful one that has a ring of even harsher reality about it.
There is no other word for O’Regan’s physical, psychologically grounded performance than virtuosic. The black box theatre of TBG Mainstage features a background of lightly drawn clouds. There is a bed whose wire mesh frame becomes a trench.
Designer Anshuman Bhatia also created the play’s most effective thing after O’Regan’s astonishing acting: its lighting, which takes us from the soft yellows of an English summer’s day to the orange of exploding shells to the dark blues of night.
O’Regan’s performance means we believe in absolutely not just Tommo and the formative guilt he feels over the death of his father, but also how he makes sense of the conflict of loving both Charlie and Molly, and feeling alienated and betrayed by both of them.
There is all the wit and play of Tommo's boyhood, too, and his love of family, like his brother Big Joe who takes up a lot of the bed. There is a toothless old woman who again pushes Tommo to make his fateful decision to join up.
Somehow, O’Regan, Reade, and Bhatia take us from a field where a plane unexpectedly lands one lovely Devon afternoon (the pilot is a little lost, and the wind whips the grass when he takes off again), to the most affecting moments of this 80-minute play, which bring Tommo to the battlefield and more than one heart-stopping moment including being at the mercy of "the Hun," in the shape of a German soldier.
O’Regan, Reader, and Bhatia make us graphically feel the terror of being cannon fodder, fighting for one’s country amid the mud, rats, and rain of the trenches, and the charged blank space of No Man’s Land.
In playing so many characters so brilliantly, O’Regan also paints, better than multiple actors could, all the influences, good and bad, that contribute to the psychological canvas of the sweet-but-scarred Tommo himself.
At its worst and most horrific, war violates and destroys all the qualities of a simple, good man like Tommo. He believes in good, he believes in family above all else. Private Peaceful—while a personal tragedy—is also a vividly sketched microcosm of a larger historical one.
Private Peaceful is at TBG Main Stage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, New York City, until Oct. 7; then Greenhouse Theater, 2257 Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, Oct. 17 to Nov. 11. Book here.