Samiya Mumtaz and Zachary Dugan. Photo Credit: Trudie Lee Photography
Martha Cohen Theatre
March 7 – April 6, 2013
Listen to my live review of The Valley on CBE Eyeopener on Monday, March 18 at 8:20
A soldier dies for their country or cause, but it’s their families that are left to understand and piece together meaning from the tragedy. While the challenges theses families face have being going on as long as wars have been fought, there seems to be a recent ramp-up on how much attention we are paying to these brave and struggling individuals. From the Oprah sanctioned show Married to the Army: Alaska to the Joining Forces initiative spearheaded by Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to Canada’s own celebrity-endorsed True Patriot Love foundation, it seems that in this case, the flavor of the month is something we call all get behind and be proud of.
So it’s no great surprise that Christopher Morris, Artistic Director of Human Cargo, a Toronto-based theatre company dedicated to discussing social issues and bringing life experiences to the stage has chosen the to focus his latest play on the wives and children of soldiers killed as a result of the war in Afghanistan. It’s also no great surprise to learn that in researching his latest play, Dust (co-written with Jonathan Garfinkle), Morris travelled to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Petawawa military base in Ontario to gather first-hand accounts later to be used as fodder for his script. This is after all the same playwright who moved to Pond Inlet for several weeks at a time to write Night, an exploration of the suicide in the Inuit community. But while Night focused squarely on one culture and issue, Dust takes a much broader view, presenting three separate scenarios of war damaged families.
Set on Scott Reid’s propless stage covered in sand and directed by Morris, the play opens with a story set in Pakistan. A mother is perturbed when her young son leaves their working class home to join the Taliban. Utilizing minimalist storytelling to the point of confusion at times, this first scenario introduces the audience to the idea of a state-sponsored de-programming centre for suicide bombers, reprisals by the Pakistan army for joining with the rebels, the motivations of young suicide bombers and the grief they leave behind when their actions are not endorsed by their family.
The second more successful story deals with an Afghan woman forced to leave her home and move to Canada after her husband is killed defending her career as an actress in the face of Taliban disapproval. With nothing but her young son in tow, the woman is helped relocate in Toronto by a Canadian film producer who met her while scouting for location in Afghanistan. Typically naïve in his do-goodness and selfishly adamant that the woman’s Canadian experience be done his way, things go badly for the mother and son when their integration is marred with ghosts from the past that leave them wounded and unable to adapt well in their new life.
The hit and miss final scenario addresses the Canadian war wife/widow experience. One soldier’s wife deals with the loss of her husband, another tries to help her cope while dealing with her fears about her own husband’s safety in combat, while a third wife deals with the shame/relief of her soldier husband’s discharge due to the psychological stress of watching his compatriots die in action.
Each story in this 90 minute, one-act show has merit and deserves to be told. And Morris’s direction does try to give each scenario space to breath and expand. But he’s fighting his own writing in many cases which sets up quick flashcard-like scenes told predominantly through monologue that barely get to the meat of any issue before being whisked away for another solo discussion. In some instances these quick soliloquy scenes have great impact. A psychiatrist reacting to the news that her patient has died setting off a suicide bomb, a little boy bravely putting his dead father behind him, a soldier wishing he could die in combat so he wouldn’t have to face the emotional issues that come with survival. These are all hauntingly written and wonderfully acted theatre gems. But just as often, Morris gives us laughably bad or superfluous scenes that suffer in direction as much as from writing. A torture scene that likens cutting a woman’s breast to slicing a mango is metaphorically obtuse and delivered without impact. A Taliban gathering is so horribly staged and performed that it took me several seconds to realize the scene wasn’t a spoofy joke. An eating disorder mini development seems thrown in at best. And the full-frontal male nudity (while brave on the actor’s part) adds nothing but shock value to what should have been an extremely heart wrenching scene.
Performance-wise, Dust is also terribly uneven. The six actors take on multiple roles in the three stories but regardless of the characters they play, certain performers shone through every time making the weaker actors seem even less competent in their wake. The famous Pakistani film and television actress Samiya Mumtaz does a lovely job as the mother of the suicide bomber, Deena Aziz shows she can do more with the word ‘no’ than most actors can do with a whole script of words, Kyle Jespersen broke hearts as the soldier who wished he was dead and Esther Purves-Smith stunned with her perceptive and self-aware portrayal of a young Afghan boy. Conversely, no matter what roles Erin MacKinnon or Zachary Duggan took on it felt as though they were speaking with their head, not their heart, failing to internalize or express any of the emotions called for by their characters.
In the end, Morris and his cast get more right than they do wrong and Dust provides a somewhat satisfying yet superficial glimpse of a complicated issue. I sincerely hope that they take this premiere as learning and growth opportunity to rethink, rewrite and restage. Dust has more than enough going for it to warrant a better treatment of its worthy subject.
For the guys – Dust may be told mostly through the monologues of the women left behind by the soldiers’ deaths, but the feelings they express are universal if somewhat unsatisfying in their depth. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – There’s much to relate to in this play that will strike chords with you one way or another. Which makes it all the more frustrating that these chords are so lightly played. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – The monologue delivery and lack of character interaction will put you off, as will the unconnected three stories that begin and end without context or resolution. SKIP IT
For the theatre junkie – There are the seeds of a very good play here muddied up by some less than stellar writing and performance. If you can focus on the parts that work however, you’ll be rewarded. MAYBE SEE IT