Local theatre’s tales from the trenches

Rachel Levine reviews Infinithéâtre’s production of Alyson Grant’s award-winning script Trench Patterns, about an injured female vet’s return home after serving in Afghanistan.

James Soares-Correia and Patricia Summersett in Trench Patterns

The English CEGEP systems talent trenches run deep, most recently evidenced by Trench Patterns. Written by Alyson Grant, Dawson College’s chair of English, the play won her first prize in the 2011 Write-on-Q! competition. Infinitithéâtre’s production of it delivers an engaging study of the human side of war’s aftermath.

The play follows Canadian army captain Jacqueline (Patricia Summersett) as she recovers physically and emotionally from a disastrous tour of Afghanistan. Missing a leg, she must learn to walk with a prosthetic one. As her mobility progresses from bedridden to a noticeable limp, overcoming the decisions she made in her capacity as captain proves a more difficult obstacle. She is unable to forgive herself and come to terms with the inhumanity of military action.

Jacqueline’s story is paralleled by that of her great-grandmother’s boyfriend Jacques (Zach Fraser), a French-Canadian WWI soldier wrongly executed after being accused of desertion. Appearing as a ghost, or even just a projection of a damaged mind, Jacqueline latches on to his presence at the expense of the real world around her. The two share not only a military background, but also mirror each other — one a killer, the other killed. Between visits from her hippie mother (Diana Fajrajsl) and her psychiatrist (also Zach Fraser), Jacqueline struggles to give up the ghost.

The parallel stories and their revelation are among the many strengths of this play. Jacques’ story of desertion and execution is perhaps even more compelling than that of Jacqueline’s. The play uses letters, storytelling and film to tell of his romance with an English girl from Westmount, his death and its effects on subsequent generations — as if under a curse, blood on the hands of each generation affects the next.

Equally commendable are the play’s fully realized characters and snappy dialogue. Jacqueline is complex, smart and edgy. She armors herself with sarcasm, a trait that no doubt helped her weather her childhood, endure sexism in the army and take command of her soldiers in hostile situations. Now, her old defense system is an albatross around her neck and she struggles to stop pushing others away with her sharp tongue.

In particular, Jacqueline’s mother is a prime target for her venom. Fajrajsl gives a juicy performance as the doting, ever-loving mother, hopeless in the face of her daughter’s rage and frustration. Fajrajsl balances between being a pushover and a bastion. She arrives at every visit bearing comfort food, then bears up against her daughter’s emotional onslaught with great dignity and pockets a few zingers of her own.

While the first three-quarters of the play braids together beautifully, Jacqueline’s final epiphany is not satisfying. All the innovative writing that allows us to follow Jacqueline’s story is more or less set aside and replaced with a page that could easily have come from a Psych 101 text. Ultimately, psychiatric appointments don’t make for good drama.

On the whole though, the production is engaging. Jacqueline is a likeable, identifiable individual. Her struggles are very real and her manner of dealing with them compelling. Grant’s play is a minefield of loaded exchanges between characters that capture the limits of communication under duress. The heavy subject is never cumbersome under Grant’s deft pen with a string of great observations about hospital food, army life and patronizing government documents. ■

Trench Patterns is on through Nov. 18, Bain St-Michel (5300 St-Dominique), 8 p.m., 2 p.m. matinée on Sundays, $12–25

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