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Theatre review: Armstrong’s War is a refreshing take on the war hero genre

War is hell, but as Colleen Murphy suggests in her new play Armstrong’s War, life can be too.  But it is in the measure of hope that accompanies adversity that will dictate whether one has the courage to go on.

Forgoing the traditional plucky youth and crusty old soldier thrown together under forced circumstances, in Armstrong’s War, currently playing the Arts Club Revue Stage, Murphy updates that well used plot device by putting that plucky youth with a soldier himself barely out of his teens.  The setting is also important as this is not American Jingoism, but a homegrown Canadian exploration of the price of war in modern times.

Twelve year old Halley is trying to earn another of a long list of merit badges as a Pathfinder, the Girl Guides program for 12 to 14 year olds sandwiched between Guides and Rangers.  Bound to a wheelchair, she must pursue badges that are accessible, like volunteering to read to a young soldier injured in Afghanistan.  At first refusing her services, the two eventually build a bond and secrets are revealed.

Matreya Scarrwener and Mik Byskov in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Armstrong's War.

Matreya Scarrwener and Mik Byskov in the Arts Club Theatre Company production of Armstrong’s War.  Photo by David Cooper.

As the two begin bonding, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage takes centre stage, but if you’re not familiar with the American Civil War story, these early scenes weigh down the action as the duo trade off reading from the book, with Halley reading with what she thinks is a suitable Union Army accent and the soldier having difficulty just reading.  While the bonding that is occurring between them is undeniable, the context behind the playwright’s choice in using Crane’s novel is all but lost.  Fortunately there are enough breaks away from the novel to help through this section and once it finds its footing outside Crane’s novel, the story really begins to take flight.

Much of that footing comes from Murphy effectively turning what could be cliché on its ear through some clever misdirection, but much like the secrets that the two eventually reveal, expanding on those moments here would spoil much of the show.

Surprisingly funny, at times bordering on black comedy, Armstrong’s War gets much of its strength from the terrific performance of 14-year old Matreya Scarrwener who plays the young Pathfinder.  Slightly geeky, Scarrwener takes control from the start and refuses to let go.  As her own secrets are revealed we see her pluckiness, anger and frustration, but with that central underlying hope.  Scarrwener’s skill is within many of her reactions including an early scene where the solider first rejects that is simply heartbreaking.

As the young solider Michael, Mik Byskov brings realism to his role, haunted by what happened while on tour in Afghanistan.  As the play progresses we see the soldier gradually letting go of the horrors he has witnessed.  This transition is underscored as he puts on another piece of his army uniform in each scene, until he is in full dress uniform by the end of the play.

Set designer Naomi Sider and lighting designer Conor Moore capture the stark and antiseptic feel of the medical facility.  Sider’s auto-closing door on the soldier’s room was a particularly nice touch.

A refreshing take on the war hero genre, Armstrong’s War isn’t about emotional manipulation, but a straightforward approach to its universal message of courage through hope.

Armstrong’s War

By Colleen Murphy.  Directed by Mindy Parfitt.  An Arts Club Theatre Company production.  On stage at the Arts Club Revue Stage through November 9, 2013.  Visit http://artsclub.com for tickets and information.

Mark Robins on Google+

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