At the start of Maple Route, a new made-in-Manitoba play by Winnipeg writer Jeremy Scarth Bowkett, we see Master Corporal Cameron Venninger (Karl Thordarson) huddled in a corner, shaking, so twisted with grief and trauma that he barely looks human anymore. By the end of Theatre Incarnate's production, the audience may feel ready to join him.
This is not a criticism. It is a testament to the effectiveness of this searing drama.
Over three acts and 150 minutes, Bowkett unfolds the story of Cameron's attempts to cope with his undiagnosed and untreated post-traumatic stress..
Toby Hughes and Karl Thordarson (Richard Kellie)
Set in Winnipeg in 1993, Cameron has just returned from a tour of duty as a peacekeeper with the Canadian Forces in the former Yugoslavia - although, as we see here, the term "peacekeeper" was a cruelly ironic one in the Balkan conflict.
At 28, Venninger can already see himself becoming a "sick, bitter old man," but seems powerless to stop his descent - or to mitigate the damage it does to his wife Alexa (Theresa Thomson) and his former comrade-in-arms Dean (Toby Hughes). What unfolds is a gripping, if bleak, tragedy.
It would be easy for this to become an "issues" play about the sad effects of PTSD, the relative ignorance of Canadians about our role in the Yugoslav wars, or the challenges facing soldiers returning from combat zones. But Bowkett's smart script - impeccably researched and finely tuned - makes this a very human story.
Cameron and Dean may be the kind of guys you'd instantly dislike if you ran into them at a bar, yet Bowkett makes them sympathetic, though damaged, characters. Similarly, Alexa is not simply the "victimized wife," but a tough, determined character in her own right - though seemingly as confounded by how to "fix" Cameron as he is himself.
A moment of conflict (Richard Kellie)
Christopher Sobczak's taut direction doesn't shy away from the horror in Bowkett's script, particularly as Cameron finally begins to describe what he experienced in the aftermath of monstrous "ethnic cleansing" in an area of Croatia called the Medak Pocket.
And the three-person cast likewise commit themselves admirably to the dark material. Thordarson brings a quavering, nervous energy to the role of Cameron; Hughes has a hoser charm as Dean, whose youth has been scarred by his experiences; and Thomson effectively shows the frustration and fear under Alexa's tough exterior.
They're backed by Brenda McLean's striking set, which blends sandbags and bombed-out buildings with a domestic kitchen scene, constantly reminding us that the soldiers have brought the war home with them.
There are quibbles - the running time (with two intermissions) is long, though not unnecessarily so, and there are a few spots where the dialogue shows some rough edges. But overall, while Maple Route
is not easy viewing, and it is certainly not for the faint of heart - it's intense and it's draining - it's also excellent dramatic storytelling.
Those who have the stomach for challenging drama will be well served by a trip down this Maple Route.
Maple Route plays at the Colin Jackson Theatre at PTE through Sept. 28.
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