— Production photo
PEOPLE LIKE US
The Remembrance Day season in Vancouver is being marked this year by an abundance of Canadian plays about hot, cold and imaginary wars and the wounds they can inflict beyond the battlefield. Armstrong's War at the Arts Club deals with a damaged veteran of the Afghan conflict. United Players' Closure explores the aftermath of World War Two. Touchstone's The Romeo Initiative is a Cold War spy thriller. Except in the Unlikely Event of War, a Pi Theatre/Horseshoes and Hand Grenades co-production, satirizes peacetime paranoia.
Maybe this unusual theatrical interest in Canadian belligerence marks a warm-up for next year's 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One. Or could it be an effect of the Conservative government's heavy investment in commemorating the War of 1812? Or a response to Harper's ideological shift from celebrating Canadian peacekeepers to trying to re-invent Canada as a nation of warriors?
Sandi Johnson's People Like Us, receiving its world premiere at the Firehall Arts Centre, responds to another set of current headlines: the shoddy treatment Canadian veterans frequently receive at the hands of the government that sent them off to war. In the passionate, sometimes mesmerizing performance of Johnson's monologue by Sarah Louise Turner, we hear of one family's struggle with the toxic after-effects of a military policeman's battlefield experiences in the first Gulf War. The play gives a grotesquely ironic twist to the Canadian military's longtime slogan, "There's no life like it."
On Amanda Larder's simple set--a sofa and empty easy chair surrounded by a patchwork camouflage tent--Turner speaks to us as Kate Rourke, army wife and mother. The place is Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, the year 2001, the occasion the marriage of Kate's daughter, Fiona. But Fiona's father Gerry won't be there. The story Kate tells about her husband is Kate's story, too: "What happened to Gerry happened to me."
At the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1991, Gerry is called to duty, shipped off to Kuwait. A dedicated soldier, he goes without complaint. Kate, at home, watches the war on TV with growing horror: "They bombed the Garden of Eden! The desert was on fire!" Gerry's phone calls frighten her. He seems increasingly disconnected, depressed.
He returns from the war a changed man--stiff, anxious and ill. Johnson's understated lyrical writing gives us an impressionistic sense of the man Gerry had been: "He was an all-around athlete," Kate recalls, "but he held his cutlery like a prince." No longer. "I picked up a stranger," Kate says. Deeply damaged, Gerry suffers night terrors, crying jags, migraines, chest pain. He develops blood in his stool and obstructive lung disease. "The war was still happening inside his body." He starts acting crazy and violent, threatening his kids. "A thief was taking over our life."
Kate's diagnosis is unequivocal. Many Western combatants, exposed to a variety of toxic chemicals, came home suffering from what came to be called Gulf War Syndrome. Gerry's condition, Kate is convinced, resulted from his exposure to the weapons-grade depleted uranium used by American and Canadian forces in the conflict, though they had been assured it was only "mildly radioactive." When Gerry died, Kate reports bitterly, "they were afraid when they came for his body."
But the Canadian government and military refuse to acknowledge any responsibility. As awful as Gerry's postwar suffering and its effects on the family had been, Kate's experience of trying to get disability and compensation benefits for Gerry and other damaged Canadian vets she comes to champion is almost more horrifying. Resolutely fighting through red tape, official indifference and bureaucratic bafflegab, Kate becomes known as the pit bull of Dartmouth. It's not a nickname she particularly relishes. "How did this happen to us? We were so happy."
We get a good taste of the happiness they once shared through the upbeat, often funny buoyancy of Kate's narrative. A vital woman, only in her thirties when all this was happening, she and Gerry had an active, athletic sex life ("I was the master of multiple orgasms!"). Kate also practises belly dancing, and her lecture-demonstration on that feminine art is a highlight of the show.
Turner gives a vibrant performance, powerfully conveying Kate's horror and frustration, nicely modulating her anger and sorrow, and never allowing her a moment of self-pity. Director Sarah Rodgers runs the show at just the right pace, giving Turner enough stage business to keep us from feeling that we're watching static storytelling. She uses the sounds and images of battle sparingly (Scott Zechner's explosive sound effects and lighting designer Alia Stephens' shadows of tanks and planes), letting Turner and Johnson's narrative do the work.
This play is a bracing reminder that war can be many different kinds of hell, even for people like us. Lest we forget.