Those present at The ArtsCenter Friday night were the very first to see the world premiere of Ian Bowater’s play Into the Breach. The work is inspired by a true story of a handful of men who fight in World War I, who are reassembled from their various posts to present a show for the troops. The five soldiers were all in school at Avon together and performed a production there of Shakespeare’s Henry V. We meet the boys at school together before the beginning of the war and follow them to France, where they gather to perform a makeshift show.

The show is the idea of nurse Claire Ailey (Laurel Ullman), who believes that the camaraderie will help to revive Victor Fellowes (Peter Vance), who suffers from shell shock. At Ailey’s request, the boys’ professor Duncan McPhail (David Hudson) sends for the four boys to perform excerpts from Henry V. As the former classmates arrive, we learn how they are attempting to cope with the horrors of war. Henry Verity (Jeb Brinkley), referred to as Verity Major or just Verity, considers himself a patriot,and is high-handed with his peers and uppity with his commanding officer, McPhail. Bertie Verity (Brandon Rafalson), also known as Verity Minor, though mostly called Bertie, is a trooper who sings and dances; he has joined with the Scots and wears a kilt, which garners him hoots from the boys. Albert Holden (Justin Johnson) arrives late because he has the farthest to come; he is a member of the RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) and spends his days supplying the army with staples such as food and ammunition.

Act I sees the reassembly of the acting troupe and rehearsals, which are fraught with difficulties. Act II is the actual show, performed with the audience acting as the assembled infantry. By the time “the show” began, the audience was very much into the work, and responded with enthusiasm and applause at the various skits performed.

The play is presented on a huge multilevel set that is the creation of James Carnahan. Using steps and ramps, Carnahan has devised a set that functions on multiple layers to provide shelter, an army medical ward, and a stage for the “performance.” This set acts as a seventh member of the cast, and is yet another technical marvel of Carnahan’s. Lights have been designed by Andy Parks, who has been staging theatre in the Triangle for over twenty years. Adam Lindquist designed the sound as well as composed an original score for the production. Director Gregor McElvogue has assembled a crack team of production professionals for this play, and the end result reflects their prowess.

McElvogue has been working with the cast since late spring, developing the play in workshops and instilling a sense of ensemble in the cast. These six actors have developed their own esprit de corps, and it clearly shows onstage. While each actor has his own character to present, it is the interaction of these five men and their nurse that brings about the entertainment

As would be the case, there is friction at first as the boys try to recreate the scenes from their school days. But as the show progresses, the team begins to act as a unit and manages to present a fine showing of entertainment in what has to be the very first precursor to the USO. Bob Hope would be proud.

Playwright Bowater uses Shakespeare to explore both the glory and the horror of war. Using Henry V, Bowater presents the patriotic sense of these young soldiers, but he also points out that even Shakespeare, who never went to war himself, was aware of the horrors of the task. At one point the boys are huddled together, trying to make sense of the notion that Henry V executed his prisoners. While Verity Major accosts the boys and tries to call the notion untrue, it is McPhail who reminds them that there are provisions in place that protect the lives and the rights of prisoners.

Bowater and The ArtsCenter have combined forces to present a well-oiled and gripping tale of the first mechanized war, of the pressures evident and the costs involved. This ensemble cast takes Bowater’s work and brings the words to life, with energy and passion. Those who are historians of World War I, and also those who are familiar with Shakespeare’s histories, will be well entertained. But even those who are not will find a multitude of entertainment in this play. While it is invigorating to watch a show being assembled, this work never fails to remind us of the horrors of war.

Into the Breach continues through Sunday, October 19. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.