Life is a battlefield in impressive drama
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 Justin Otto offers a nuanced portrayal of a withdrawn and angry soldier driven by a desire to do the right thing.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.