Playhouse Theatre Company in co-production with Theatre Calgary

The Wars
By Dennis Garnhum, based on the novel by Timothy Findley

Dates 18 October 3 November 2007 Venue The Vancouver Playhouse

Reviewer Jane Penistan


The Playhouse Theatre Company opens its new season with the premiere of Dennis Garnhum’s adaptation of Timothy Findley’s novel The Wars. This is a representation of the life of Canadian officer serving in the Allied Armies in the First World War.

In those days many a young Canadian saw volunteering to join the Army as an escape from a humdrum life into one of travel, adventure, and glory. Even the somewhat haphazard training camp depicted in the play, fails to damp this spirit of adventure for some of the recruits, others became cynical, and some fearful. These recruits come from an assortment of prairie boys, Nova Scotia fishermen, and men from old established Upper Canada Toronto families among others. The older men educate their more innocent comrades into the joys of adult city life.

The voyage across the Atlantic is a badly planned operation and begins to raise doubts as to the efficiency of the senior officers of this expeditionary force. It is not only the recruits who are untrained.

The arrival at the scene of operations and the subsequent battle scenes all show the inefficiency of the supplies, training, and battle awareness of this section of the Canadian forces. The inevitable result of the carnage of Flanders fields is a hospital full of sick and wounded men surviving or succumbing to horrendous wounds and illness. Here they are cared for by sympathetic trained nurses who do what they can to repair the minds and bodies of their patients.

The central character of this depressing, war-torn drama is Robert Ross (Christian Goutsis). We meet him first alone in an empty railway station at night, whence he must walk to join his unit at a training camp in the prairies. Robert is the privileged child of an establishment family in Toronto. He has a wheelchair bound sister, Rowena (Meg Roe), with whom he enjoys a close family relationship. The brother and sister suffer from an autocratic, aristocratic, socially conscious mother (Kerry Sandomirsky) and a wealthy businessman father, who does have some parental affection, which he finds difficult and embarrassing to show.

On the long sea voyage Ross strikes up a friendship with a gentle maritimer, Harris (Christopher Austman) who describes the wonders of the sea and of the whales to the landsman who has a great love of animals. They strike up a friendship that lasts until their early deaths.

Ross is commissioned through his father’s influence, though he is temperamentally unsuited to being a commanding officer. He does his best for the men and horses for which he is responsible. It is his humanitarian sensitivity and new found courage that bring him to breaking-point and to his ultimate demise in hospital, where, though mortally wounded, he is dying under arrest.

This large cast is well directed so that all the different characteristics of the many varied roles are clearly realized and portrayed. Each has his personality and physicality. Of those playing double roles, the most successful is Meg Roe, initially Ross’s beloved, charming, invalid sister, and later the sympathetic, wise, and competent V.A.D. Marian.

Dennis Garnhum has been very well served by his set, lighting, and sound designers, who have conjured up railway stations and departing trains, battlefields, seascapes, trench warfare in mud and bombardment, the destruction of a church and the aftermath, and the deathly quiet, sterile interior of a military hospital. These craftsmen are largely responsible for this production's success. Theirs is outstanding work of the highest quality.

© 2007 Jane Penistan