A Separate Peace
nytheatre.com review by Garry Schrader
August 15, 2010
We two boys together clinging
One the other never leaving.
The poignant yearning in Walt Whitman's lines has been expressed in literature from Homer to Brokeback Mountain, by way of such works as Joseph Conrad's The Secret Sharer and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room. These works describe something different from mere friendship. In Freud's term, there is something oceanic about it: The harsh world is kept in abeyance for a time, while an idyll of near-perfect communion proceeds, even to the blurring of identities. (The titles of certain of these works reflect this: the film We Were One Man, the novel Call Me By Your Name.) Eventually, of course, the world reasserts itself, and in nearly every case, the bond is ended by death.
John Knowles's popular 1959 novel, A Separate Peace, is in many ways a perfect example of this strain in literature. We are at Devon prep school in the summer of 1942. America is beginning its involvement in World War II, and the boys of the school are gearing up to go to battle. Two 16-year-olds—the studious, introverted Gene and his roommate, handsome, athletic Finny—form an unlikely and intense bond. "He attracted everyone," Gene says of Finny. Gene is no exception, but where Finny is open and generous, the more conflicted Gene is suspicious, distrustful, envious. "I was not of the same quality as him. I couldn't stand this." Still, he says, "there's no harm in envying your best friend."
There is. A terrible event occurs. Finny is badly hurt, his athletic and war career ended before it has begun, and Gene feels responsible. The incident, however, does not destroy their friendship. In fact, they become closer, the two inhabiting a world, says Gene, "with just Finny and me": a separate peace, apart from the "fat old men" who bring the world to war.
Brian Foyster has made a remarkable one-man stage adaptation of Knowles's novel, and, under the precise and resourceful direction of Jason McConnell Buzas, he enacts it with great tact and skill. With impressive range and physicality, Foyster surrenders himself to the story and the roles; there is no narcissism in his performance. The lighting by Grant Wilcoxen is subtle and evocative, and adds much to the rendering of this unsettling tale of the dark, divided yearnings of the soul. I recommend it.