By Vern Thiessen
Directed by Eric Coates
Performed by Mark Crawford, Sébastien David, Meegwun Fairbrother, Greg Gale, Gil Garratt, Tova Smith.
Blyth Festival, Blyth
June 29 to August 6, 2011
Reviewed by Mary Alderson
A Generation of Young Men Lost
The play Vimy is made all the more poignant with Canada’s withdrawal from Afghanistan this year. Each time we heard of the death of the 157 young members of our armed forces who lost their lives over the past 9 years, we were heart-broken. Imagine, if you can, how Canadians felt when the reports of the battle of Vimy came in. In four days April 9th through 12th, 1917, the Canadian army took Vimy Ridge: but with 3,598 young men dead, 10,602 injured.
As this very moving play points out, even if they survived the horrible battle, they died in the army hospitals of the effects of mustard gas, tuberculosis, or battle injuries.
Vern Thiessen has written a fascinating story of four very young Canadian soldiers, a nurse and her boyfriend. He has obviously tried to involve all parts of Canada, and in order to put characters realistically in the same place, he brings them to a hospital. The play opens just after the battle of Vimy – the soldiers end up in hospital: Sid is blind, Jean Paul is shell-shocked, Mike can’t breath due to the gas, and Will has a badly damaged arm and other injuries. Clare, their nurse, is seeking her boyfriend Laurie – an engineer who wasn’t supposed to go into the front lines but was sent anyway.
Mercifully, none of the young soldiers can remember what happened when they were injured, and don’t know how their regiment fared. But each tells his story, of who they were before the war, and what they did at Vimy in the long months of preparation for the attack on the Germans. Theissen makes us know these young Canadians and become involved their lives, so that we feel the loss of so many at Vimy.
Director Eric Coates (also artistic director of the Blyth Festival) has cast this play well. In fact, Sébastien David, himself a Quebecois, plays Jean Paul, a Montrealer trying to find his way in the Anglo army, while Clare, the nurse from Nova Scotia is played by Tova Smith from Sambro, Nova Scotia, with a Shubenacadie accent. Mike, from an Indian Reserve in Alberta, is played by Meegwun Fairbrother of the Grassy Narrows First Nation. Greg Gale from Newfoundland plays Laurie of Nova Scotia. Gil Garratt of Scarborough plays Will from Renfrew, while Mark Crawford of Glencoe is Sid from Winnipeg. With their respective backgrounds they present the accents and intonations perfectly.
It’s a moving story, giving names and faces to the young men who fought at Vimy, who defeated the Germans in battle, something the French and the British were unable to do in previous attempts. Thiessen’s play doesn’t glorify war, nor is it critical of the war efforts. It just makes us think about the loss of a generation of good young men.
My great uncle Oscar James Fearman (my grandmother’s brother) died at Vimy April 9, 1917. Perhaps that is why I am consumed by this story. I now have a context for this relative I never knew.
Vimy continues in repertory at the Blyth Festival, Blyth until August 6. For tickets, call the box office at 1-877-862-5984 or visit www.blythfestival.com