Peterborough Theatre Guild opened their newest production on October 30. Vimy, written by Vern Thiessen, tells the tale of four bed-ridden Canadian soldiers and one nurse from Nova Scotia. It takes place shortly after the battle of Vimy Ridge, i.e., after April 12, 1917.
Thiessen shows the fragility of body and mind following this excruciating battle spearheaded by the Canadian Corps. The backgrounds of the characters demonstrate the likely multiracial and multicultural Canadian Forces. Mike is a young indigenous man from Alberta, Jean-Paul is a francophone from Montreal, and Sid came from Winnipeg and Will from Ottawa.
Thiessen’s innovation is the interplay between present and past, reality and dream. Our four characters transition from their beds to various times just before the war, showing their inspiration for fighting, familial ties, training, and in horrifying scenes, their wounds by grenade, mustard gas, and psychological shock.
Director Bea Quarrie seamlessly transitions between the present and past. Two of the actors, Maximillian Czmiellewski and Kevin O’Neill, take on additional roles in these flashbacks. It is in these scenes that Thiessen is able to articulate the challenges facing Indigenous and French-Canadian soldiers. Czmiellewski’s performance was particularly noteworthy. The 15-year-old actor convincingly portrayed a tough young man straight out of the 1910s. His future as an actor is surely bright.
The first act was surprisingly not dominated by the four men. Clare, our Nova Scotian nurse, was the star. She demonstrates care and compassion as well as the difficulties she faces in providing uncompromising aid. Her travels to the past reveal a lover gone off to fight at Vimy. In a melodramatic twist, a letter at the end of the play details that her lover was killed in battle.
Her lover, Laurie, was in the midst of comforting Sid after a blast damaged his eyesight. With the battle lost for the German forces, Laurie is inexplicably shot as he holds Sid in his arms. Unfortunately, by curtain, Sid also succumbs to his wounds.
To recreate the feel of the battle, light technicians Andy Duncan and Don White play with a number of reds, blues, and whites. Quarrie was also not afraid to leave us in occasional darkness, as this is what the soldiers would have seen and felt.
Upstage, Clare would appear to tend to the needs of the men; Laurie visits her on the platform surrounding the middle and front of the stage. This was an easy and clear separation between Clare’s present and past. The bed-ridden men occupied center stage while their respective pasts were played out downstage. I was impressed by Quarrie’s use of the stage and her otherwise minimalist set. Even without props and elaborate backdrops, I often felt the sting of war in Quarrie’s production.
But it is precisely the sting of war that Thiessen wanted to represent. He states that he did not want to show the good or evil of war, the wrongs and rights, the commitments and the sacrifices. He writes, “I wanted to discover how small actions can define us as individuals and as a nation.” While a noble endeavour, I would have appreciated some criticism of war, its casualties, and its atrocities.
Thiessen’s reluctance to take a stance resonates with some conservative positions about war. Such a position demands scrutiny. Without a clear stance, war is thus represented as something inevitable, as something that just happened, luckily not to us. Others go to war and die in places that are far, far from our homes here in Canada. This applies to 1917 and 2015.
Regardless of my criticisms, the production itself is worth viewing. As we approach Remembrance Day, Quarrie’s play arrives perfectly on time. Her production is a necessary reminder and lesson about the role Canadian soldiers had in the short, yet significant battle on Vimy Ridge.
Vimy runs until November 14. Visit theatreguild.org or call 705-745-4211 for more details.