This Operation is a Bittersweet Triumph

Imagine that it’s a night like any other night.  Suddenly a warning siren begins to blare throughout the night sky.  You begin to hear loud whistles growing closer and closer.  Then explosions rip through the air.  Buildings collapse around you.  The ground shakes with the force of an earthquake.  Your heart feels as if it will burst through your chest as your life flashes before your eyes.  If you can imagine that, then you can imagine the terror of the Sheffield Blitz.  Operation Crucible by Kieran Knowles lets the audience experience those horrifying nights through the eyes of four young steelworkers.  It is currently playing at the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company.

Knowles’ script can best be compared to a runaway freight train.  It starts at a fever pitch and keeps you holding on for dear life until the bitter end.  Be prepared for a most unique night of theatre as Knowles’ script completely rewrites the rules of the game.  The fourth wall dissolves as the actors interact with the audience.  The set consists of a few benches and chairs which the performers manipulate to create the scenes in conjunction with vivid vocal descriptions.  The time of the play rapidly shifts back and forth from present to past and from reality to memories.

Lara Marsh has constructed a powerhouse show as she shares Knowles’ tale of the Sheffield Blitz.  Occurring on the nights of December 12 and 15, this event was the devastating bombing of Sheffield, England (the munitions center of the country during World War II) by the German Luftwaffe.  Ms Marsh’s meticulous direction leaves no beat unearthed in the telling of this heavy tale.  The staging is unbelievable as her 4 actors make full use of the tiny performance space in an exhausting feat of acting as these men are constantly on the move from start to finish.  Ms Marsh has also led her thespians to sterling performances making for one of the best pieces of ensemble acting I’ve seen in quite a spell.

Before getting into individual performances, it’s important to understand the effectiveness of this ensemble.  This play has long stretches of broken, fragmented dialogue with cues that don’t follow a normal flow of conversation.  I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such tight cue pickups from a cast as these gentleman just came in right on top of each other on all but a couple of occasions.  This is doubly impressive when one considers that there were often no clues to tip the actors off to their next line.  Their physicality was also splendid as the actions and scenes of this story are told largely through the body language of the performers as they paint pictures of luxury hotels, the work of a munitions mill, or the crippling injuries from being caught in a collapsing building.

Daniel Sukup is outstanding in his BSB debut as Tommy.  Sukup imbues Tommy with a wonderful sense of playfulness as he leads the hazing of the new boy, Bob, at the mill.  He’s also an incredible observer of human nature, depending on his ability to judge character to assess situations and form relationships.  Yet he also uses that talent to see to the heart of people in order to keep them at arm’s length.  Tommy’s gregarious nature is also somewhat of a mask that hides his desperate loneliness as he has no family and perpetually grieves a father lost to the horrors of war.  Sukup’s ability to switch from the fun-loving prankster to the haunted and lonely man at a moment’s notice is nothing short of uncanny.

Eddie McGonigal’s Bob is a wonderful treat for the audience.  He’s just full of sunshine and optimism and brightens situations just by stepping into a room.  McGonigal does a superlative job of portraying Bob’s innocence and naiveté.  As the new guy, McGonigal’s Bob is subject to a few practical jokes to test his mettle at the mill, but comes through them with flying colors, especially with his tireless efforts on the job.  Nothing gets Bob down for long and, even in the heart of mortal peril, his positivity serves to buoy the spirits of his friends in their darkest hour.  But McGonigal also gets to shine in a dramatic moment when Bob shares a story about his dog.  Be sure to have a tissue ready.

Eric Grant-Leanna expands his resume by another top flight performance with his interpretation of Phil.  I found Phil to be the most interesting character in the show as he is a Scotsman which makes him the outsider of the group as his friends are all British.  I found this very apropos as Phil certainly feels like an outsider due to the fact that he was drafted to go fight before a foot injury rerouted him to the mill.  Grant-Leanna does an exceptional job revealing the self-doubt that is constantly on Phil’s shoulders as he tries to make himself believe that he was not a coward for not being able to fight.  Indeed, so heavy is this doubt that Phil’s final monologue in the aftermath of the bombing had me slumping in my seat as he made a defining choice about his life.

There aren’t many who can pack intensity into a role like Daniel Dorner.  Making a rare appearance on stage, Dorner plays the role of Arthur, the leader of the group.  Dorner’s Arthur is a pillar of strength for these four friends as he grew up dirt poor yet has such strength of spirit as he always believed that someone always had it worse.  That nobility serves Arthur well as he suffers a horrific leg injury partway through the show and struggles to work through it.  Dorner sells the injury flawlessly, dragging and/or limping on the useless limb for the remainder of the play.

Charleen Willoughby’s workingmen costumes suit the era of the play to a T.  Darrin Golden’s lights are magic from the red hot glow of a forge to the yellow alert for the bombing raid to the stale shine of a single light bulb when the men are trapped in a hotel.  Eric Griffith’s sounds enhance the play’s story and drew me so deeply into it I actually jumped at a few moments when the attacks and destruction began.

Director Lara Marsh had said this play would help the audience see World War II from the British side and that it certainly does.  It is a tale of friendship, tragedy, and the strength of the human spirit.  It also removes the blinders and shows that the horrors of war often transcend the battlefield.

Operation Crucible will be performed by the Brigit St Brigit Theatre Company at the Jewish Community Center through Nov 19.  Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm.  There will be a 6:30pm performance on Sunday, Oct 23.  Tickets cost $25 ($20 for students/seniors (65+)/Military).  For tickets, contact the box office at 402-502-4910 or visit the website at www.bsbtheatre.com.  The Jewish Community Center is located at 333 S 132nd St in Omaha, NE.

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