Matreya Scarrwener, Mik Byskov

Arguably the only good thing that came out of the Canadian misadventure in Afghanistan is the grist it has provided to playwrights’ mills. Broken bodies and scarred psyche often make for cathartic and gripping theatre.

In Armstrong’s War, Toronto-based dramatist Colleen Murphy adds to her award-winning resume with a coherent exploration of the healing properties of compassion and tough love.
Mik Byskov
[Mik Byskov]

21 year-old Corporal Michael Armstrong has cocooned himself in a military hospital, recovering from a serious leg wound. He’s seen too much of the sad and the ugly and is damaged inside and out. Like it or not, 12-year-old Pathfinder Halley Armstrong determines that her namesake could be a means to her self-centred end. She needs some “good work” to qualify for a community service merit badge and reading to him once a week for six weeks seems pretty easy-peasy.

Despite initially being rebuffed, her perseverance is overwhelming and Michael is steamrolled into acquiescing as Halley questions and confronts. Did I mention that Halley is also damaged and confined to a wheelchair?  

Matreya Scarrwener

After a couple of false starts, the pair settle on Stephan Crane’s classic war story, The Red Badge of Courage. As Armstrong’s leg heals, the dynamic between the two is transformed. Much humour balances the troubling horrors of war and the everyday petty injuries experienced just growing up.

Taking and exploring passages from Mr. Crane’s work, we see a deeper understanding of conflict in its greater sense and how it affects relationships. Sympathy and empathy prove to be the two sides of this particular coin. 

Michael is the first to confront his demons. Through a story he initiates called Armstrong’s War he relates a tale of a mercy killing. Halley takes issue with the events and the motivation behind them. Michael erupts and speaks loudly his “truth” regarding Halley.

Although deeply and truly offended, Halley re-evaluates her life and the lies she has been living in a story she writes also entitled Armstrong’s War. While no fairy tale ending would be plausible for either character, loose ends are mostly wrapped up and their lives move forward.

Clearly director Mindy Parfitt has gambled mightily in casting 14-year-old Matreya Scarrwener in a role that would daunt any experienced actor. Her performance does not disappoint. In a role channeling a 21st century Anne Shirley of Green Gables, I could not detect one false note in her performance. She is both precocious and radiant as she needs to be entirely convincing.  

Mik Byskov

Relative newcomer Mik Byskov has almost an equally-challenging role of embracing his hurt both in character and theatrically. Yes, he is subdued during the first half of this 90-minute, single act play, but that is exactly what the script calls for. When his character is finally given voice, Mr. Byskov comes through loud and clear.

The Arts Club should be applauded for bringing this new work to their stage. Although the play was initiated at the Banff Centre’s Playwright Colony starting in 2007 and workshopped at London, England’s Finborough Theatre last summer to strong reviews, it’s only now receiving an official, long-overdue world premiere. The standing ovation for the production and especially for its actors was well deserved.

With Remembrance Day soon upon us, the play will give us much to remember. Armstrong’s War continues at the Arts Club Revue Stage through November 9.

Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini

Larry Ghini enjoys Vancouver's vibrant theatre scene and has taken in many productions over the years. He holds a BA in Sociology from Simon Fraser University. Larry is financially involved with the film Eadweard Muybridge, produced by Josh Epstein, directed by Kyle Rideout, and starring Michael Eklund.

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