Life is a bat­tle­field in im­pres­sive drama

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

WHEN 12-year-old Hal­ley Arm­strong rolls into a hos­pi­tal room unan­nounced, she dis­cov­ers an in­jured Cana­dian sol­dier has taken refuge un­der the bed in a makeshift bunker. In many ways the cor­po­ral, who is re­cov­er­ing from leg frac­tures suf­fered in an IED blast dur­ing his tour of duty in Afghanistan, is still in the bat­tle zone, tor­mented by a prom­ise he made to a brother-in-arms. He wants noth­ing to do with the chirpy wheel­chair-bound Pathfinder who has come to read to him in or­der to earn her com­mu­nity ser­vice badge. So the un­likely ad­ver­saries are ready to face off in Arm­strong’s War — which opened the 2014-15 RMTC Ware­house The­atre sea­son Thurs­day night — a lively stage skir­mish that cul­mi­nates in a mo­men­tous bat­tle of wills over their con­flict­ing views of life and death. Toronto play­wright Colleen Murphy’s chief weapon in her one-act drama is the power of sto­ries to un­earth deeply buried truths. The two com­bat­ants share the same sur­name and it is no sur­prise the two will share much more be­fore the Courage, the Stephen Crane clas­sic cel­e­brated for be­ing the first novel to view war through a sol­dier’s eyes. The per­spec­tive in­spires him to write a fic­tional story about what hap­pened in Afghanistan when two sol­diers who have made a mercy pact — they would rather die by each other’s hand than live with a ma­jor dis­abil­ity — are blown up. The ac­count up­sets Hal­ley, who is un­able to un­der­stand why the sol­diers would choose death over life with­out the limbs that make them a man. She writes her ver­sion of the story but with a happy end­ing, set­ting off a heated ar­gu­ment be­tween th­ese two wounded war­riors. Both have been in­volved in life-and-death sit­u­a­tions and have sur­vived with con­flict­ing philoso­phies about cop­ing with loss. More sto­ries flesh out the per­sonal wars the pair are wag­ing. Although Murphy of­fers no con­clu­sion, both Arm­strongs turn out to be a credit to their uni­forms. Murphy of­fers a re­al­is­tic glimpse into the re­al­ity of a re­turn­ing Cana­dian sol­dier, whom the pub­lic for­gets about after watch­ing his happy re­union with fam­ily at air­ports. She sets up an in­trigu­ing de­bate about hope, which, in Michael’s opin­ion, is dan­ger­ous and un­re­al­is­tic in bat­tle. Arm­strong’s War is per­formed im­pres­sively by two Univer­sity of Win­nipeg grad­u­ates mak­ing their RMTC de­buts. Justin Otto of­fers a nu­anced por­trayal of a with­drawn and angry sol­dier driven by a de­sire to do the right thing. He is con­vinc­ing as a standup guy, well aware the Cana­dian war ef­fort will not change Afghanistan, but will­ing to re­turn to try. More is asked of Rus­sell, be­cause she does not look like a 12-year-old and seems mis­cast. While pa­trons can only guess how the dy­namic be­tween the Arm­strongs might be al­tered, Rus­sell rolls on, like up­beat Hal­ley, not to be de­nied. She plays off Otto well, and earns all of the laughs. Her girl­ish, book-lover’s hor­ror at dis­cov­er­ing some of the pages of The Red Badge of Courage have been folded is en­dear­ing. At­ten­tive the­atre-go­ers will no­tice sim­i­lar­i­ties with another re­cent Ware­house show, the poignant Jake’s Gift. The one-woman Ju­lia Mackey drama also brings to­gether an ever-cu­ri­ous pre­teen who be­friends a com­bat veteran, this time from the Sec­ond World War. They, too, learn more from each other than they could have ex­pected.

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