“There was no white linen, for my husband.”
That was one of the repeated lines in People Like Us, Sandi Johnson’s new play. Sarah Louise Turner plays Kate Rourke, wife of a 1991 Gulf War veteran, in an emotionally-evocative solo performance that had me in laughter and in tears.
I saw the first preview of the world premiere last night at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. And if my remaining time in Vancouver wasn’t already booked up with professional commitments, I’d be tempted to see it again.
“He held his cutlery like a prince.” In another repeated line, she shows us a glimpse of Gerry, the gallant man she married, kind, loyal, honoured to be a soldier – a man who once lifted her off her feet on the way home from a Christmas party in Petawawa to carry her across an intersection in her velvet dress in a snow storm.
Her narrative slips among times, the present (2001), the time before Gerry’s posting to Iraq, while he’s away, and how she copes after he returns home physically and mentally damaged. But the story’s easy to follow, due to clear writing and Ms Turner’s shifts in voice and body language. She becomes Gerry’s advocate with the military and the doctors, and gradually she starts helping other veterans conquer their own bureaucratic opponents. “Helping military veterans apply for medical marijuana – that should be a marketable skill?” She becomes known as the “Yarmouth (NS) Bulldog” for her tenacity.
She also maintains her love of belly dance, and a few times during the play she puts on scarves, coin belt, and zils to show how the dancing helps her maintain her power and sensuality during difficult times. The connection between “the Middle East” of the belly-dance culture, and her second-hand experience of Iraq through television and phone calls and Gerry’s flashbacks, is not spelled out at all. The story unfolds in a subtle way not often seen in short theatre pieces. A few times I thought I guessed at a disaster to come, and I was always wrong. The performer carries out various stage business during the narrative (folding laundry, packing a suitcase, making tea and drinking it), but this never distracted me from what she was saying. Instead it just emphasized her get-on-with-things attitude as a determined mother and military wife.
Firehall Arts Centre is an effective medium-size black box performance space. The set (designed by Amanda Larder) was fascinating – at first I saw the re-creation of a clean cozy family living room, with flowered upholstery, baskets of laundry, cups of tea, and wide worn floorboards, but gradually I took in the backdrop and ceiling from a different world. You see, above the white wainscoting, the room had been covered by a military-style canvas tent, only instead of conventional green camouflage or desert camouflage, the dirty stained fabrics included some Laura Ashley style flowered brocades or wallpapers. And partway through the show, I realised that along the walls of the room were little piles of sand, as if the tent/walls were insufficient to keep out the encroaching desert, just as Kate’s attempts to make a safe familiar home for her husband and children were not sufficient to keep the effects of war away from them.
This production continues at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver until November 16th. I don’t know if there are any plans for it to travel. There should be.