Armstrong is the surname of both of the (unrelated) protagonists of Colleen Murphy's wonderful latest play: the 21-year-old Canadian soldier, Michael, who's recuperating in an Ottawa hospital from the injuries he sustained in Afghanistan, and the 12-year-old Pathfinder Girl Guide Halley – wheelchair-bound following an accident and a self-proclaimed "reading fiend" – who comes to read to him, as a route to obtaining the "community service badge" she covets.
"I picked you because we have the same last name," the perky Halley tells the taciturn Michael on her first visit. After abortive stabs at teen lit and Wuthering Heights, the duo settle on Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage as their novel of choice, a selection that proves significant. For "Armstrong's War" turns out to be the title of the two texts that result from their shared reading: the first penned by Michael as a way of dealing with a traumatic experience; the second written by Halley as a critical riposte.
A wounded soldier bonding over books with a disabled pre-teen... The premise of Murphy's play sounds super-worthy and studded with sentimental pitfalls. But what's striking about Armstrong's War, which is receiving a fully staged workshop production at the Finborough prior to its official world premiere in Vancouver, is just how deftly such traps are avoided. While the overall arc of Halley and Michael's relationship isn't unpredictable, there are several surprising twists along the way – along with details and emotional nuances that ring absolutely true, and that Jennifer Bakst's production brings beautifully to the fore.
Murphy – a firm Finborough favourite following her tenure as the theatre's Canadian Playwright in Residence 2011-12 – writes sharp, humorous, wryly perceptive dialogue that hotwires us to the hearts and minds of her characters and makes us care for them, deeply. She ensures that each reading encounter has a different tone and creates a marvellously distinctive young heroine in Halley - curious, full of facts, eager to show off her literary prowess ("That's called foreshadowing!") - while providing an understated yet resonant portrait of war's effects in Michael.
A critique of the military mission in Afghanistan is certainly discernible, when Halley's naïve query "Are we winning the war?" prompts a response from Michael that outlines the complexities of being combatants in the counter-insurgency. But a political position isn't hammered home, as it surely would be if this were a play by one of Murphy's compatriots, Jason Sherman. Armstrong's War is all about redefining courage and heroism, and exploring how "death is always your battle" whether in or out of a war-zone. But it's equally concerned with the power of story-telling, and how writers remake and reshape their experiences through fiction.
Canadianists in the crowd might quibble with Murphy's choice of The Red Badge of Courage as the play's Urtext rather than its Canuck counterpart (of sorts), Timothy Findley's The Wars. But her references to Crane's novel are exemplary, demonstrating how the text impacts upon Michael and Halley in ways that reflect the characters' contrasting approaches to life and to the narratives that they fashion. The play's construction is intricate, but doesn't succumb to the clever-clever fussiness that can mar stories about stories; if anything, some spelling-it-out speechifying in the final scene could be snipped.
Ultimately, though, the success of a play as intimate as Armstrong's War is dependent upon its performances, and it's hard to see how those in Bakst's production could be bettered. Mark Quartley and Jessica Barden's immaculately Canadianised "outs" and "ehs" are to be admired, but these are the mere surface details of their performances. What counts more are the emotional insights that the actors bring to their roles, Quartley's perfectly-caught wariness and reserve complementing a performance of heart-melting gorgeousness from Barden who, glowing and chipper, naive and wise, gradually reveals the depths beneath Halley's spry eagerness. The candour and conviction that both actors bring to the stage make Murphy's play into a thoroughly involving and beautifully sustained duet.