NEW YORK—Surviving a near-death experience is one thing. Coming through it unscathed is something else.
Kieran Knowles’s harrowing drama “Operation Crucible,” based on actual events, takes the audience underneath a massive pile of rubble to meet four men who were trapped for more than 12 hours in the basement of the Marples Hotel in Sheffield, England, after it was destroyed in a German air attack in December 1940.
Most of these facts are known to the audience before the show begins, thanks to promotional material in the theater lobby, as well as the various press releases. What is not known beforehand, and what makes the entire experience so riveting, are the men presented. The play deeply examines just who these men were.
Bob (Salvatore D’Aquila), Tommy (Kieran Knowles), Phil (Christopher McCurry), and Andrew (James Wallwork) may not all have been born in the city of Sheffield, but they’ve all long since embraced it as their home, staunchly supporting local football teams (albeit different ones), and taking great pride in their jobs at the steel mill there.
Working together as a team, their job entails taking red-hot steel ingots from the mill furnace and pounding and shaping them into desired final shapes. Bob, the youngest and most introverted of the four, sees their work as akin to applying fine brush strokes to a painting.
Each of the four has their own story to tell. Arthur remembers wanting to work in the mill from at least the age of 7. That’s when his father first showed Arthur what he did for a living.
Phil, not the handsomest of the lot and rather awkward in social settings, recounts the time he caught the eye of a woman who literally had to drag him onto the dance floor. They’re now married with an infant son.
Bob recalls with some disdain the hazing he took from the others when he first started at the mill, such as being sent to look for non-existent tools.
Tommy is a bachelor with a tiny flat of his own. Basically it’s just a place with a stove, a bed, and some wallpaper he put up. To Tommy, it’s home.
The reality of war is ever present. The factory has been converted to make equipment for the military, and the four as well as many of those around them have assumed a quiet acceptance of the situation. Tommy remarks that the early warning lights flash an alert “so often it were hardly worth the bother of looking at it.”
This attitude serves as a defense mechanism, which allows them to function on a day-to-day basis instead of becoming paralyzed by the horror of what suddenly might occur.
It’s through these backstories, played out via memories and conversations interspersed within their time underground, that allows the audience to care about these four men.
The men must fight the urge to panic as they wait to be freed. They also wonder what they’ll find waiting for them, if they’re indeed lucky enough to survive.
Phil is particularly upset in this regard. He’s upset not only with his friends for pulling him into the hotel for safety, it being nearest available shelter, but also because he feels like a coward who took sanctuary instead of trying to make it home and ensure the wellbeing of his wife and child.
The acting is very strong. The portrayal of each man is distinct enough to create a compelling picture, both as individuals and as friends. Most striking is how at ease they are with each other as they play cards together, eat together, and work together—trusting in your partner being essential when handling hot steel.
Whether their ever-present camaraderie will survive the aftermath of the December night remains to be seen.
Without a doubt, the most haunting moment of all occurs when some survivors the “Sheffield Blitz,” as it became to be known, recount the horrors of what they saw and felt as they try to make it home.
Bryony Shanahan’s direction is excellent. He makes maximum use of the playing space, basically a bare stage with a few props, to bring to life everything from a steel mill, to a dance hall, to the lobby of the posh hotel the men enter when the bombs start falling.
Lighting designer Seth Rook Williams brings forth a claustrophobic feeling to the story while the four are trapped underground.
“Operation Crucible,” the German code name for the attack on Sheffield, offers both a stirring historical lesson and a powerful human experience.
59 E. 59th St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or 59E59.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: June 3
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.