By Hannah Moscovitch
Directed by Ronan Marra
Featuring Billy Fenderson, Michael Finley, Courtney Jones & Dylan Stuckey
Presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre
Make no mistake about it. Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch—called by CBC Radio “the wunderkind of Canadian theatre”—knows her stuff. In addition to her plays The Russian Play, Essay, and East of Berlin, Moscovitch was a featured contributor to the award-winning radio drama Afghanada which interviewed hundreds of soldiers on the frontline of the Afghan War. Hence Moscovitch’s recent play This Is War—which tells the story of four Canadian soldiers stationed in the Panjwaii region of Afghanistan in 2008—practically drips with the deep texture of real life experience.
This Is War adopts a Rashomon-like narrative structure, probing the events leading up to a botched joint Canadian/Afghan National Army operation through the eyes of three of its participating soldiers, each of whom delivers their own haunted version of events to an anonymous member of the press. Unlike Rashomon, however, there doesn’t appear to be much divergence between the three stories, each of which seem to agree on a few crucial points.
At the center of the escalating tensions leading up to the day of the battle is a love triangle between Corporal Tanya Young (Courtney Jones), Sergeant Stephen Hughes (Billy Fenderson) and Private Jonny Henderson (Michael Finley). Hughes is a cocky, even menacing, figure with an anarchic wit and wolfish smile. Henderson, by contrast, is a baby-faced, small-town boy eager to rush headlong into the first flirtation that comes his way. Young, as the link between them, finds herself drawn ineluctably to both despite her better senses. But hindsight is, as they say, 20/20, and it’s only after she’s slept with both of them that she fully comes to regret her decisions—especially as tensions soon thereafter escalate between Hughes and Henderson.
Despite the fact that this is ostensibly a ‘war drama,’ Moscovitch’s main preoccupation in This Is War is sexuality, and there’s a tenuous connection to be made here between the violence of war and the violence of sex, each of which is capable of ripping people limb from limb. In addition to the central love triangle, Moskovitch also drops a somewhat peripheral gay subtext into the relationship between Hughes and the company medic Chris Anders (Dylan Stuckey), who is himself openly homosexual. But like I said, the connection here between war and sex is tenuous, with one sphere of action failing to comment on or fully reinforce the other. Hence, This Is War ultimately reads more like a salacious melodrama that is only incidentally set at the frontline of battle.
As a play about ‘War’ with a capital-W, This Is War doesn’t touch down upon anything that we haven’t seen before. Moscovitch borrows the cloying metonym of a child’s innocent face upon which to impress the horrors of martial violence, especially the face of a young Afghani girl whom Corporal Young accidentally shoots down. Yet despite such sentimental imagery, we never get a sense of This Is War as going beyond the impetuously vain self-concerns of its featured Canadian soldiers.
Consequently, This Is War comes across as less concerned about the effects of violence on the victims and more concerned about its effects on the aggressors. In lieu of focusing on the dying little girl bleeding out, her precious eyes blinking in shock, we get the strained emotional trauma of Tanya Young who, as one may recall, actually pulled the trigger. The result is an oddly insular war drama, eager to capture the narcissistic stress and tensions of its assailants even as it dumps it faceless, voiceless and anonymous Afghani victims into mass graves.
That said, This Is War’s U.S. premiere at Signal Ensemble Theatre is about as good a production as one might hope for. Director Ronan Marra succeeds in capturing the frenzied, tense-laden sexuality at the heart of the story, and performances across the board are nuanced and harrowing. As Sgt. Stephen Hughes, Billy Fenderson is especially terrifying, managing to turn vague motivations in Moskovitch’s script into something broodingly existential. And Courtney Jones performs a miracle in milking the self-pitying indecisions of Tanya Young for as much genuine sympathy as humanly possible.
Like I said, This Is War does succeed in relaying the emotional ambivalences, vague motives, poor decisions and narrow perspectives that seem to define real life at the frontline (and elsewhere). But where we want This Is War to stand for something (anything, really), it only ever waffles, unable to channel the anxieties and guilt of its characters into a clear and purposeful way forward for the rest of us.
Reviewed by Anthony Mangini
Reviewed Saturday, August 24th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
This Is War runs until September 28th, 2013. Signal Ensemble Theatre is located at 1802 W. Berenice Avenue. For tickets call (773) 698-7389. For more information and reviews, check out its Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/this-is-war/6410/.