Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars is short, powerful, and nightmarish. Second Lieutenant Robert Ross is swept up in the insanity of the World War One killing fields while back in Canada his family experiences its own wars, his mother her own madness.
Great novels are notoriously difficult to adapt to the stage. How do you externalize the intense interiority of Ross’ experience for the public medium of theatre? And what about the war scenes? In the movies you can blow things up. In live theatre you have to be more imaginative.
Director Dennis Garnhum has mixed success in translating Findley’s novel to the stage. His Theatre Calgary-Vancouver Playhouse co-production relies heavily on extraordinary visual imagery and sonic effects. Whether the scene takes place in a lovely Ontario garden, aboard a heaving transport ship, or in the chaos of the trenches, the stage looks and sounds great.
Tim Matheson’s projections onto the overlapping scrims and flats of Alan Stichbury’s set effectively evoke the range of settings. The battlefields are especially vivid, garishly lit by Kevin Lamotte and punctuated by Scott Killian’s frighteningly realistic roar of artillery and screaming horses. Kelly Wolf’s sumptuous Edwardian costumes mark the stark contrast between home and the unimaginable horrors of the front.
In Findley’s story one character is cursed with the ability to imagine every horror. Mrs. Ross (Kerry Sandomirsky in a devastating performance) knows she’s going to lose her children and cries out angrily against the awful inevitability. She appears to Robert (Christian Goutsis) like a terrible Greek oracle in a series of dreamlike scenes—the most powerful in the play—accusing him, among other things, of responsibility for the death of his invalid sister, Rowena.
Rowena is played beautifully by Meg Roe, who also doubles, near the end of the play, as a nurse in a London military hospital where Robert visits a gentle soldier dying of pneumonia (the excellent Christopher Austman) and another who has lost both his arms (Trevor Leigh). There Robert tells the nurse how terrible it is at the front.
Unfortunately, we rarely experience the terror except through theatrical pyrotechnics. Various scenes ought to convey that feeling—Robert nearly drowns in the mud, then nearly dies in a gas attack in no man’s land. But their power gets diluted amid a lot of dead air, long stretches when nothing much seems to be happening. There’s very little sense of dramatic tension building towards the apocalyptic ending.
Goutsis provides a competent performance but his Robert remains less than fully realized—as do most of the men in his command who are vividly individualized in the novel. Garnhum’s Wars succeeds best as a fantastic sound and light show about a mother’s terrible grief.