It takes courage for a theater company to tackle a classic that resists adaptation to the stage as much as "The Red Badge of Courage."
Lonny Chapman's staging of Stephen Crane's novel turns the Group Repertory Theatre into a Civil War battlefield of the mind--a prudent decision, given that the major battle in the story rages inside the hero's head.
Not only had Crane never experienced war, but he was only 23 when he wrote about an idealistic farm boy, Henry Fleming, who joins a motley regiment of Yanks in a place resembling Chancellorsville and turns coward at the first crack of enemy fire.
Published memoirs from Civil War vets were largely conventional accounts of the war. What Crane did was to take these chronicles and turn them into literary art with a vivid, impressionistic style and a psychological insight about fear and fighting that hit the public like a windstorm. "Red Badge of Courage" became America's earliest anti-war odyssey.
Chapman's adaptation, a self-professed labor of love, probably takes the novel about as far as it will go in legitimate theater. That's not to say that patrons experience Crane's "Red Badge" up there on stage. What they get is a theatrical semblance of the endless waiting and sudden turmoil of war.
What's missing, because it's essentially impossible to dramatize in a play, are Crane's brilliant descriptions of landscapes, his imagery of menace ("the red-eye gleam of hostile campfires") and such horrific, memorable scenes as Henry stumbling upon a rotting corpse in a little forest glen.
On the other hand, literary purists and fans force-fed the book in English classes will appreciate the production's self-styled achievements. Viscerally, the show artfully silhouettes soldiers against back-lit blue and red scrims representing the cobalt cool of night and wrathful, bloody sun of day (set and lighting design by M. J. Mitchel). And a terrific sound design (by William A. McCoy) imaginatively conveys forest and war noises.
Equally impressive, the actors' faces look like tintypes of the period. As the hero originally played by Audie Murphy in the 1951 MGM/John Huston movie (a production that remains alive in Lillian Ross' great backstage book "Picture"), Darren Shepherd is convincing as the romantic protagonist. Dreaming of "Greek-like" battles and fending off the anxieties of his girlfriend (Julie Davis) and mom (Geraldine Allen), his Henry goes from fear to cowardice to bravery, merging, finally, into the tableaux of fallen comrades.
Other visages are natural extensions of muzzle loaders and sweaty bluecoats (textured costumes by Mary L. Reynolds). The battle ensemble ranges from William A. McCoy's one-legged narrator and Tom Regan's blustery sergeant to weary, frightened soldiers portrayed with squalor and grime by Louis Herthum, E. Danny Murphy, Michael Moser and Gary L. Kent.
In its theme, structure and vignettes, the production reminds you of John DiFusco's Vietnam war drama "Tracers" (beautifully staged at Cal State Northridge in 1990 as part of the L. A. Fringe Festival), except the latter was propelled by a primal rock score.
"Red Badge" also has music (traditional Civil War ballads sung by guitar-strumming Liza Standish). But that church-like, stained-glass window under which Standish sings clashes head-on with the agony and fury on stage.
WHERE AND WHEN
What: "The Red Badge of Courage."
Location: Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., North Hollywood.
Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; indefinitely.
Price: $10 general, $8 students and senior citizens.
Call: (818) 769-7529.