Armstrong’s War: right vs right theatre

As Theatre Network’s last main stage production in a season split in two by the Roxy Theatre fire on January 13, Armstrong’s War is a play that’s at once heart-wrenching and hopeful. Colleen Murphy’s 2013 play follows the relationship between Halley Armstrong, a twelve year old Pathfinder (the next age group up from a Girl Guide), and Corporal Michael Armstrong, a 21 year old wounded soldier. Halley (Eva Foote) is trying to get her Community Service badge by reading to Michael (Jamie Cavanagh), and Michael is trying to heal so he can do another military tour. While they’re not related, the two discover that they are both recovering in different ways from profound losses.

Director Bradley Moss says, “It’s two people who have gone through traumatic experiences… [Halley] and the soldier share something in that area of loss that is a lot closer than they realize. It creates a bond of friendship, but it also creates a place where they’re separate as well. They have very different beliefs in hope, courage and life. And… they’re both right. What’s great about Colleen Murphy’s writing and her plays is that she’s a big advocate of right vs. right. You see that in the play but you also see them overcome their differences and have a connection through the loss and they have a great friendship because they really tell each other the truth, and the truth allows both to move forward in their healing.”

While war is always in the background of Armstrong’s War, Colleen Murphy has not made the war or any political statements the focus of the play. Bradley says, “[Colleen is] more interested in what happens when somebody goes through the worst thing you could go through. Probably one of the worst things you could go through is to lose your Dad or to lose your best friend while you’re being shot at. And then to have a pact where you’re supposed to do a coup de grâce – a mercy kill – what intense guilt that would be… When we met Major R.A. Sandy Cooper who came in and [gave] advice… We asked him about that. The first thing out of his mouth was, “It’s personal. You need to know that it’s personal.”  That was a really big permission for us to go in that direction, to be personal and not to worry about anything but just being a human being trying to get better over something they feel really guilty that they were supposed to do for a friend.” Major Cooper also assisted the team in sourcing a Wound Stripe and other distinctions of dress for the uniform Michael wears.

Colleen Murphy introduced Bradley to Armstrong’s War when the two were working on Theatre Network’s production of Pig Girl last season. The show had just premièred in Vancouver, and when Bradley read the script he had that sort of visceral reaction that told him he just had to produce it. “I read it and totally fell in love with it. I love the fact that in a large way it’s about our military and the sacrifice they do for us and for our society…I also loved it because it has two roles in it for young actors which are hard to come by.”

The play features Jamie Cavanagh as Michael, the soldier and Eva Foote as the spunky, assertive Pathfinder who’s bound and determined to collect as many badges as she can. While you might expect that the relationship between the two characters would be one of patronage on Michael’s behalf, the two are really more equals in a journey to healing. Proving their mental and emotional equality, the play reaches its climax with a fierce argument between the two. Bradley says, “They’re diametrically opposed to each other and arguing you don’t kill someone just because they lose their legs. It’s a very profound experience for [Halley] – it’s wrapped up in who she is. For him, it’s his loss of hope and feeling like hope is not courage. It wasn’t useful for him in his time of need with his friend and he’s very screwed up about what that means and she’s screwed up… When you’re watching the show, you realize they’re young people who have gone through these really awful experiences and they’re physically damaged, but they’re also emotionally damaged. One has fresh grief and one is a little further along in their grief. But what a horrible thing to deal with at a young age. And I think for us to watch them have resilience and strength and the ability to move on is part of the powerfulness of the human spirit.”

Armstrong’s War plays at the ATB Arts Barn’s Backstage Theatre, with Bradley giving special thanks to Fringe Theatre Adventures for making the space available and the Varscona Alliance for delaying the demolition of the Varscona and their move into The Backstage Theatre. Bradley says, “It’s been a miracle, the fact that we’re able to be in here doing the show. When the fire happened, The Backstage Theatre didn’t exist. It was really awful to have a fire in January and trying to find a venue – everything’s booked!”

Armstrong’s War runs until April 19 at The Backstage Theatre at the ATB Arts Barns. Tickets are $27.50 – $31.50 through Tix on the Square.

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