Ian Lake and Lisa Berry in "This is War" (Bruce Monk)
Canada's military mission in Afghanistan - the combat portion of which officially ended just over a year ago - caused much soul-searching on the part of Canadians. It's likely to cause much more as it becomes part of our history.
But artistically, Hannah Moscovitch's new play This is War (Prairie Theatre Exchange is presenting the premiere production by Toronto's Tarragon Theatre, which opened there in January) will be remembered as one of the first honest, unsparing, and complex dramatic examinations of the conflict. And though more will undoubtedly follow, it's hard to think this won't be among the best.
Early on in the play, Captain Stephen Hughes (John Cleland) defines the central problem for Canadians at home, many of whom struggled to reconcile the Afghan mission with Canada's traditional role as a nation of peacekeepers - those who separate hostile factions. "In Afghanistan, we were one of the hostile groups," he says. "We coulda used some peacekeepers."
In her nuanced play, Moscovitch - who was one of the writers on CBC Radio's series Afghanada, and pretty much indisputably holds the crown as "Canada's hottest young playwright" - skillfully avoids passing judgment. As three soldiers and an army medic recount their versions of a critical "incident" - the details of which I can't reveal without spoiling the play - we're posed with difficult questions of morality, of human psychology, and ultimately, of what it really is to go to war.
The four characters speak to an unseen interviewer, but the effect is to speak directly to us as the audience, and so engage us in the play's central questions. It is impossible to be a passive spectator of This is War, and director Richard Rose's taut production ensures that.
Designer Camellia Koo's simple set - camouflage netting which drapes the back of the stage, but also extends over the audience's heads - blurs the line between stage and spectator. Thomas Ryder Payne's precise sound design (including tasteful use of prog metal band System of a Down's hauntingly tragic "Soldier Side") envelops us before the show begins, as the sounds of a battle fill the theatre.
And once the action on stage begins, it holds its audience firmly for a captivating 90 minutes, wisely performed without intermission. Rose's cast - rounded out by Lisa Berry, Ian Lake, and Brendan Murray - commit themselves admirably to Moscovitch's fully-dimensional characters. None of these people is perfect, but all are sympathetic - like the conflict they are mired in, they are layered and complicated. The performances, all consistently intriguing in Wednesday's preview performance, are finely tuned to Moscovitch's writing, which shows off her superb ear for naturalistic dialogue.
This is war. It's complex, it's challenging, and it's certainly not always easy to watch. But it is a smart, compelling theatrical gut-punch.
This is War runs at PTE runs till March 10.
Ed's Garage offers lighter fare at Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's Mainstage.