THEATRE REVIEW: This is not your country’s war

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“This Is War” opens like gunfire.

For the first 20 minutes, you’re pretty sure you don’t breathe. Three actors, facing the audience, deliver a series of monologues on life in Afghanistan as members of the Canadian armed forces. As you watch it, in the back of your mind you’re thinking to yourself: “Yeah, they say Canada, but this reads like a thousand stories heard right here in the U.S.” The play’s alternate title could be “This Could Happen to You.” You know this story.

Except maybe, it couldn’t; and maybe, you don’t. One of the play’s main characters is a woman, the lone female in a company stationed in Panjwaii, one of the most volatile regions of Afghanistan. In the United States, women aren’t serving in combat roles in quite the same way. Being a woman in this scenario hasn’t spared her. If anything, it’s made her nightmare a little worse.

There’s never been any question of the U.S. role in Afghanistan; but, up north, the Canadian public is living through its own Vietnam era with Afghanistan, where public perception of what they’re doing over there isn’t jiving, at all, with the reality. For many, Hannah Moscovitch’s play “This Is War” has been a startling shock to the system.

For 90 straight minutes, you see the world through the eyes of four Canadian troops — three regular army and one medic — and you doubt anyone could sit through this show and not feel a bit shell-shocked by the end. As you leave the theater, you tell the friend who brought you that this play was going on the same list with Schindler’s List and Requiem for a Dream — that list of things you are so, so glad you saw, but that you don’t think you could ever sit through, ever again.

The play boasts a talented ensemble of actors, who step so thoroughly into the lives of their characters, there’s no question of whether this is an authentic portrayal of military life. That’s probably the issue that hangs over every piece of performance art about war, right? You always hear: some things you simply cannot know if you haven’t been there. However — watching Billy Fenderson in the role of Captain Stephen Hughes walking on a tightrope of sanity that’s yawning over the abyss of chaos or Courtney Jones who turns in a performance as the lone female troop Tanya Young that’s so visceral it makes you want to claw through your own skin — you would never know that neither of them have never been there. You do not have to suspend your disbelief. The tension, the shock, the constant stress and fear of war seeps into every line, every facial twitch, every movement on the stage.

Michael Finley gives a heart-wrenching performance as the young, naive Private Jonny Henderson, while also delivering the lightest moments in an extremely dark show. The piece is rounded out — and, you might say, grounded — in the emotional portrayal of Chris Anders. Anders, a medic who just wants to help, is delivered by cast member Dylan Stuckey with a stoicism and jaded resignation so palatable that it leaves you as breathless as you were 90 minutes ago, when the assault on everything you thought you knew first started.

“This Is War” runs through Sept. 28 at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W Berenice Ave. in Chicago. Get your tickets at www.signalensemble.com/productions/nowplaying.html.