Friday, November 28, 2008

Of love and war, once more

Jennifer O'Connor and Samson Kohanski in Mary's Wedding.

I owe Whistler in the Dark a few notes on their latest, Mary's Wedding, which plays upstairs at the Calderwood through this weekend. I've dragged my feet on walking down the aisle with Mary, however, because I really don't have too much to say about her. I suppose I could be outraged that the Whistlers - long an idealistic bastion of provocative new work - have gone all commercial on me, but I don't blame them (somehow I'm not surprised Howard Barker wasn't paying the bills!).

And to be honest, it's hard to resist the simple, okay, clich├ęd, charms of Mary. Many may be shocked to discover that I'm a sucker for honest sentiment, but I am, and author Stephen Massicotte knows just how to spin time-tested narrative threads into a delicate yarn of love and war, with a tone that approximately crosses The Glass Menagerie with Our Town.

The play has a slight postmodern gloss, in that it's all happening within Mary's head, but don't worry, this narrative trick is only milked for tears, not formal experimentation, and nothing very surreal or psychologically revealing bubbles up from Mary's subconscious, anyhow. Instead, her "dream" follows roughly the arc of many an honorable wartime tearjerker - and we are, after all, still in a time of war (remember that?). Young Mary, an uppercrust Brit newly arrived on Canada's shores, and her equally young love, Charlie, a handsome innocent who's a crack horseman, meet cute in a thunderstorm (cue foreshadowing), and are soon enjoying bareback horse rides together and reading aloud from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and "The Lady of Shallott" (ohmigod, cue more foreshadowing!). Surprisingly enough, Mary's mother wants nothing to do with this lowly, if hunky, young man, but before that recycled plot can get started, the Great War intervenes, and Charlie is sent to the vasty fields of France with Canada's famous horse brigades. From then on, there really isn't a single surprise in the script, but Massicotte's touch is so light, and his feeling for his secondhand tropes so genuine, that the play never really feels like hackwork; it feels instead like the welcome return of a familiar flower you'd thought had perished long ago.

And the Whistlers tend this unprepossessing little bloom well - indeed, their stripped-down version makes sweet virtue of necessity. In Mary's dreams, she herself impersonates Charlie's new comrades on the battlefield, and Jennifer O'Connor manages this trick with surprising ease - arguably, she's stronger as the sergeant who befriends Charlie than she is as the rather plummily-accented Mary. As Charlie, newcomer Samson Kohanski doesn't bother with a Canadian accent (thank God), but concentrates on this idealized young man's gentle good nature, which he brings off convincingly. Director Meg Taintor keeps things sweet but simple, and so the incipient syrup in some of the scenes never congeals, and she's ably assisted by designer Emily Nichols, who merely dresses the space with appropriate props, and lighting designer Erik Fox, who pulls off several evocative moments with limited means.

Of course the resonance of Mary's Wedding owes as much to our current mood as well as to the play's author and producers. Once again, the country has realized that war is folly, and that the lives of innocent young people have been destroyed by it. It would be nice to pretend that Mary's Wedding is merely a period piece; except, alas, it obviously isn't.

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