At the Firehall Arts Centre until Nov. 19 Tickets: 604-689-0926 firehallartscentre.ca
Poppies are blooming on lapels and again our thoughts turn to wars past and present. Many historians claim that Canada "came of age" during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, April 9 to 12, 1917, which saw, for the first time, four Canadian divisions working in concert. Acknowledging that officers who led what many saw as a suicide mission were likely to be killed or wounded, soldiers learned the tasks of those beside and ahead of them; each man was given a map and a timeline of the objective. Snow, sleet, mud and poison gas added to the misery of being under steady bombardment. Ninety-seven thousand Canadians were involved, 3,600 died, 7,000 wounded-in three days. Vimy Ridge was taken. The nearby village of Vimy, population 1,000, was ruined. While the event was-and still is-a source of Canadian national pride and unity, outside Canada the battle is, apparently, viewed as somewhat insignificant.
Governor General's award-winning playwright Vern Thiessen doesn't attempt to document the strategy of the offensive but rather to look at the lives of six Canadians who took part. The setting is a field hospital behind the front but within earshot of heavy shelling. Clare (Sasa Brown) is a nurse from Shubenacadie, Nova Scotia. In her care are Sid (Sebastian Kroon), a prairie boy from Manitoba who dreams of living in Bora Bora where it's "80 degrees all the time"; Mike (Ryan Cunningham), a Blood from Alberta; Jean-Paul (Sean Harris Oliver), a francophone from Quebec; and Will (Mack Gordon), a lover of the outdoors. Somewhat underdeveloped as a character is Laurie (Daryl King), a tunnelling engineer and Clare's fiancé.
Sensitively directed by Donna Spencer, VIMY takes place on Craig Alfredson's multi-platformed set that stands symbolically for the ridge itself. Four wooden "cots"-looking frighteningly like coffins-are ranged stage front in the reconfigured Firehall theatre with seating on two sides. James Proudfoot's lighting is sepia-toned with flashes of artillery fire occasionally piercing the shadows. Sabrina Evertt dresses the soldiers in authentic-looking First World War uniforms.
The characters represent a microcosm of Canadian culture: anglo, francophone and aboriginal-each with different reasons for being part of the war. While conflict rages outside the sheltering hospital, small battles are fought inside: anglo against franco, aboriginal against both. Riding herd on the soldiers is Clare who, just like the men, has sacrificed her personal life for the war.
Thiessen's language is poetic, but it is the structure that fascinates as past and present interconnect. Time is fluid but flows seamlessly. Bandages come off Sid's eyes as he revisits his youth; Will's sling is put aside as he recounts paddling adventures. Clare appears and re-appears to change their dressings, restore the sling, and give comfort to those whose lungs have been destroyed by gas. Act 1 ends with Sid, Mike, Jean-Paul and Will going over the top in a blaze of glory and utter disbelief written on their faces. Act 2 repeats this moment again and again as the aftermath is explored.
There's fine ensemble work here, sparked up with poignant individual stories: Jean-Paul's hands smelling of meat as he works with his butcher father, Sid joining up because "it couldn't be worse than Winnipeg," Will's memories of canoeing alone on Alberta lakes, Mike's vision quest with his brother Bert.
War is hell, but it doesn't get any worse than three soldiers assigned to execute one of their own for cowardice.
Don't expect a documentary from VIMY and don't expect either a condemnation or justification for war. On the eve of Canadian withdrawal from Afghanistan, VIMY encourages sober reflection.