A pair of powerful performances mark Armstrong’s War
By Colleen Murphy. Directed by Mindy Parfitt. An Arts Club Theatre production. At the Granville Island Stage on Wednesday, October 23. Continues until November 9
Anne of Green Gables goes to Kabul: the two characters in Armstrong’s War embody wildly different sensibilities. Amazingly, the actors make their performances work—if not the entire play.
In Colleen Murphy’s script, 12-year-old Halley Armstrong, who is determined to earn her community-service badge for Pathfinders, shows up on a weekly basis to read to hospitalized Afghanistan war vet Michael Armstrong. Halley uses a wheelchair. Michael has PTSD as well as a wounded leg and his chatterbox visitor bugs him, but there’s no shaking her.
With her combination of self-dramatization and ingenuousness—“I possess steely determination”—Halley really is Anne on wheels. Halley’s rarefied period innocence should make the role next to impossible to perform, but 14-year-old Matreya Scarrwener, who is making her professional stage debut, is phenomenal in the part. Within the cute-kid stereotype, Scarrwener finds so much depth that she brought tears to my eyes. And she gets every damn laugh—often with a subtle shift, like the way Halley’s face softens when Michael says he has a present for her. The key to Scarrwener’s success is that she never sucks up to the audience: her performance works because she honours her character—with steely determination.
Mik Byskov, who is making his Vancouver stage debut in Armstrong’s War, is also terrific. Plainspoken and emotionally tortured, Michael inhabits a more readily recognizable reality, which Byskov gets seamlessly right. Even when I thought that, in the larger picture, the text was going off-track, word by word and moment by moment, I believed everything that Byskov’s Michael said and did.
Under Mindy Parfitt’s direction, there’s a wonderfully unsentimental relationship between these actors. The honesty the interpreters bring to the play goes a long way toward bridging its stylistic gaps.
The script is boring for far too long, though. Halley and Michael read to one another, from The Red Badge of Courage among other texts. They read, heads down, and then discuss what they’ve read. It’s like sitting in the theatre and watching a radio. The predictability of the play’s structure worsens the tedium: Halley arrives, they chat, they get out a book, Halley leaves. Another day: Halley arrives, they chat… And so on.
It takes forever for Murphy’s play to home in on meaningful conflict and to find engaging complexity. Murphy’s notion of how one might resolve PTSD is beyond naive. That said, the last 20 minutes of the play’s 90-minute running time are its best. Framed in surprising plot reversals, a nuanced discussion of hope emerges. But you travel a long road to get there.