'Johnny Got His Gun' transcends its grim theme

Like ''The Elephant Man'' in its stage adaptation, ''Johnny Got His Gun'' seeks a bearable means by which to depict grotesque physical disfigurement. The actors portraying the Elephant Man relied on body language rather than makeup to convey John Merrick's condition. In presenting the shattering spectacle of Dalton Trumbo's World War I amputee, Joe Bonham, actor Jeff Daniels employs no such contortions.

The events of Trumbo's 1939 novel, ''Johnny Got His Gun,'' take place in ''the mind of Joe Bonham.'' The adaptation by Bradley Rand Smith preserves the subjective nature of Joe's narrative while allowing Mr. Daniels complete freedom of movement. By alternating between the ex-soldier's past and present, the dramatization contrasts the experiences of a rather average and uncomplicated young American with the permanently hospitalized, quadruple amputee bereft also of sight and hearing.

The adaptation at the Circle Repertory Theater captures both the savage indignation of the anti-war novel and the tenderness with which it describes Joe's relationship with his parents, particularly his father, as well as with his most cherished girlfriend and his boyhood pals. Mr. Daniels's performance of a careful dramatization projects a poignant sense of self-identity, place, and surrounding circumstance.

Since there is nothing immobilized about Joe's active mind, Mr. Daniels can move at will - under Elinor Renfield's direction - around the theatrically atmospheric setting designed by Kert Lundell. And move Mr. Daniels does, freely and vigorously, in a physically eloquent performance. The bare stage, enclosed in chain link fencing, features an abstract sculpture of a gaunt tree encased in a metal construct and, to the left, the forbidding straight-backed armchair that suggests Joe's hospital bed.

In this one-man drama, the actor becomes a mirror image of scenes from a life lived casually but with relish that was suddenly reduced by a horrible incident of war to what Joe terms a living death. His exultant discovery of a means of communicating with the world around him - a breakout from complete isolation - brings ''Johnny Got His Gun'' to its heartbreaking climax.

Grim as it is, the Circle Rep adaptation transcends mere shock-effect sensationalism. At its best, the play is genuinely moving. The precise fusing of Mal Sturchio's orchestrated lighting and Chuck London's sound effects are supportive enhancements of a fine production.

Besides its claim to attention as serious playmaking, ''Johnny Got His Gun'' can be viewed from the perspectives of two further contexts. One is the context of Trumbo's extensive writing career (mostly in films), the consequences of his Communist Party membership, and his professional reinstatement after 13 years of being blacklisted. The other context is the current social and political ferment over the means of preserving peace, or at least of avoiding all-out war, in a nuclear age.

Dalton Trumbo's credits as a highly successful Hollywood screen playwright included ''A Man to Remember,'' ''Kitty Foyle,'' ''Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,'' ''Spartacus,'' and many others. He was a member of the Communist Party from 1943 to 1948. In 1947, he refused to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee, for which he was fined and subsequently jailed. Later, from self-exile in Mexico, he wrote scripts under various pseudonyms. As ''Robert Rich,'' he won an Academy Award for ''The Brave One.'' Trumbo broke out of the blacklist in 1960, when Otto Preminger announced that he had been hired to write the screenplay for ''Exodus.''

First published in 1939, ''Johnny Got His Gun'' won the National Book Award, and since then has gone through 33 printings. According to a 1959 preface by Trumbo, the novel was serialized in the Communist Daily Worker and served as ''a rally point for the left''; was later championed by right-wing isolationists; and, after 1945, ''found favor with the general left.'' Whatever the changing state of its acceptance or of Trumbo's ideological convictions, there is no denying that ''Johnny Got His Gun'' reflects a humanitarian revulsion against the ghastly brutalities of war.

What of the story's relevance in 1982, more than 40 years after it was written? Here are some events that have made headlines in the days immediately preceding the Aug. 10 opening of ''Johnny Got His Gun,'' at the Circle Rep. One, all-out Israeli shelling of west Beirut caused more than 300 civilian casualties , according to the state-run Beirut radio.

The House of Representatives voted down a nuclear freeze resolution by 204 to 202 votes. The US energy secretary witnessed his first nuclear bomb explosion and called it ''exciting.'' Observances were held in Hiroshima and Nagasaki commemorating the 37th anniversaries of their devastation by atomic bombs. Marking the same events, dozens of antinuclear protesters were arrested in demonstrations around the United States.

Delegates from 40 nations continued wrestling with disarmament in Geneva. The US secretary of defense told the New York Times that the Reagan administration had formulated a plan to wage a protracted nuclear war. Terrorists struck in Paris and Ankara, Turkey, killing at least a dozen people and injuring many others. Besides Lebanon, wars were being fought in such places as Afghanistan and El Salvador. The compilation could continue.

In the light of such reports, it may be that ''Johnny Got His Gun'' - admittedly a period piece - still has something relevant to say to audiences of the troubled 1980s.

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