The sound of desperation crackles in the background of Terence Rattigan's 1946 play "The Winslow Boy," which opened April 21 in the Irish Classical Theatre Company's Andrews Theatre.
On the surface, the play chronicles a family's fight to reclaim its honor in the wake of a wrongful accusation. Beneath that veneer, it tells a broader story about the struggle to maintain order in a world descending into chaos.
Set in London in the years before World War I, Rattigan's play is based on the true story of George Archer-Shee, a young naval cadet expelled from college for stealing a five-shilling postal order. In the real-life version as in Rattigan's reimagining, the cadet's family throws its full weight behind his defense, recruiting Britain's top lawyer and exhausting their emotional and financial resources in the process.
Though it is not part of the story, it should not be lost on audiences that Archer-Shee died at 19 years old in the First Battle of Ypres in 1914 -- and likely would have met the same fate whether he was guilty or not.
None of that seems to have been lost on director Brian Cavanagh, whose handsome and well-cast production emphasizes the play's baked-in sense of dread about the war while maintaining a light dusting of humor, a comfortable pace and even a few flickers of romance.
Archer-Shee in Rattigan's version becomes the slightly older Ronnie Winslow (Collan Zimmerman), who arrives on a rainy afternoon at his family's modest home in west London to break the news.
It goes over poorly with everyone, not least Ronnie's disconcertingly imperious father Arthur (Robert Rutland). Nonetheless, all are convinced of his innocence, and immediately launch a campaign to prove it. Against that backdrop, a secondary storyline involving the independent-minded Winslow daughter Catherine (Kate LoConti) and her fiancé John (Ben Michael Moran) unfolds.
Instrumental in that fight is the participation of Sir Robert Morton (Matt Witten), a barrister of supreme arrogance and opposition member of Parliament based on Sir Edward Carson. With his help, the case rises to national prominence and the outcome eventually pleases all.
To contemporary ears, the plot of Rattigan's play hardly sounds compelling. Who should care about such a petty theft by such an inconsequential figure? The characters make that point themselves often enough to make audiences wonder whether there isn't something bigger at stake.
Rattigan, who wrote the play after two devastating world wars had claimed countless Ronnie Winslows, clearly believes there is: the rule of law and individual liberty.
If all of this sounds impossibly academic, it is a testament both to Rattigan's clever script and to these performers that it rarely seems that way onstage.
As Arthur Winslow, who conducts himself as a military officer who learned fatherly affection from a manual, Rutland gives a marvelous, idiosyncratic performance. Witten's rendering of Sir Robert Morton stops itself two centimeters shy of over-the-top, which is just right.
LoConti, as Catherine, delivers Rattigan's version of "The New Woman" with confidence, attitude and grace. She is especially affecting in a touching scene with Todd Benzin, who plays a family solicitor with an incurable crush on Catherine.
As the wayward Winslow brother Dickie, Kevin Craig is irresistibly funny. No one in this cast seems more at more in his character's skin or on this stage. (One can imagine him being just as comfortable, say, at the Shaw Festival.) And fine turns come also from Lisa Ludwig as the Winslow family housekeeper, Pamela Rose Mangus as Winslow matriarch Grace, Ben Michael Moran as the cartoonishly gallant John.
As always, Tom Makar's deceptively unobtrusive sound design both pushes the action along and hints at the rumblings of dread that underlie the play. Dyan Burlingame's set, in concert with Cavanagh's lighting design and Dixon Reynolds' ruddy costumes, complete the picture with period-perfect touches.
Also true to the period, however, there are some touches of sexism that future productions would do well do avoid or at least reposition. They include the female reporter Miss Barnes (Gianna Palermo), who arrives to do a piece on the Winslow affair but becomes idiotically distracted by the curtains. The romantic sparks forming between Catherine and Morton need a better explanation than Morton's apparently irresistible charm, since Catherine is a committed suffragette and Morton opposes her right to vote.
View these drawbacks as vestiges of the times, and it's easy to see "The Winslow Boy" becomes a compelling piece of history, a story about the bonds of family and a warning about what we stand to lose should another global conflict arise.
3.5 stars (out of four)
"The Winslow Boy," a drama about a wrongfully accused naval cadet, presented through May 14 in the Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St., in an Irish Classical Theatre Company Production. Tickets are $45. Call 853-4282 or visit irishclassicaltheatre.com.