Review: Oceans Apart

Wes Babcock

 

This play, from Take A Jump in it Theatre, and written by Alain Chauvin, explores the difficult process of adjustment through which veterans returning from war must go.

The play begins with Patrick (Alain Chauvin) getting off a plane in his hometown of North Bay, Ontario to be picked up by his parents. From here he begins his parallel emotional and geographic journeys towards finding help for his post-traumatic stress, and a place for himself in civilian society, where the regimented caste- and job-system of the army is no longer there to guide him. This issue is obviously an important one in our present historical context, and the show doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of coping with trauma.

The story is narrated by Patrick, and the audience has an explicit view inside the character’s head as he navigates the newly difficult social imperatives of interacting with non-military humans from North Bay, to Newfoundland, and across the country to Saskatoon. The script is clearly in the forefront of this performance, and unfortunately its verbose paragraphs don’t lend themselves well to the natural speech patterns of the storytelling tradition to which it points. Despite the reality that Chauvin wrote the piece, and obviously cares about the material, the unnatural diction and arrhythmic text prevent him from finding a physical connection with the material as an actor. Some of the dialogue exchanges (particularly with the other actors on stage) are more believable, but equally many of them fall into the trap of clichés speaking to clichés. I’m thinking of lines like “it was war, man,” and some of the other army-related speeches, which sound so generic as to rob their speakers of the personal touches that make them human.

This lack of specificity combined with complex vocabulary attempting to sum up and characterize entire geographic regions is characteristic of a number of descriptive sections of the text about the landscape of Afghanistan, and the north shore of Lake Superior, and prevented me from really engaging with the material. I had the same problem when it came to Patrick’s interior thoughts, which seem to tell me about his anger and stress, without ever just showing it to me. An example of what I mean comes when Patrick is purchasing a used car from the mother of an air force pilot who died in service. Rather than being left to understand the emotional moment that happens in this exchange, Patrick tells us that he “understood how she was feeling.” I know you understand, and until you told me you understood, that was a purely emotional understanding that you and I and the woman shared that has now been verbalized into insignificance, because you and I have both put it into words. The sorts of specific generalities the script constantly points to prevented me from imagining what Patrick sees, and relating to his feelings.

Chauvin’s acting is understandably challenged by the explicit nature of the text; the character uses his words to tell you how he is feeling, and Chauvin’s presence on the stage is also largely limited to the telling of the story. There are few moments when we see Patrick doing anything, which is not helped by the fact that most of the other characters are represented by voice recordings. Thus, rather than

another physical presence on stage, which automatically creates a tension (we have to decide who to look at), we are left staring at Chauvin as he listens to the disembodied voices of his family and friends. The best of these moments came with the visit Patrick makes to his old friend from high school, though this too would have been dramatically improved by her physical presence to oppress him along with her voice. These problems could have been solved to some extent by having the secondary actors double up their roles, as we don’t really see them (dream sequences aside) until the play is more than halfway through.

When the other actors do get onstage, it is a welcome relief. Rebecca Laviolette, in her role as Carol, the sister of Patrick’s group-mate Joe, does an excellent job in her brief appearances. Laviolette is helped by the fact that her character is the most convincingly rendered by the script, but her physical attitude on the stage creates a welcome tension that is otherwise lacking in this performance. Daniel Groleau Landry, as the amputee Joe, also shows a good dynamic with Chauvin, who seems relieved to have someone else to act with on the stage whenever he appears.

I think the other strong part of the show is the stylistic choices made in the depiction of Joe’s injured leg, as well as the dream sequences. These added a good bit of thematic punch to what was otherwise pretty flat staging. They also echoed each other nicely throughout the story, as dreams often do, which helped link the narrative together.

Basically this show addresses some big societal issues, and aims to be a part of the ongoing discussion surrounding conflict veterans and conflict itself. It does this by calling on the language that permeates the discussion itself and attempting to infuse it with the life of a story and characters. I appreciate this desire, and I find that I’ve had more to talk about from this show than any other I’ve seen at the festival this year, so in that sense it has succeeded. Artistically, however, this show has some pretty big issues that prevented my full engagement with the very important material that forms its source. There are some partial explanations for some of these problems, including actors pulling out of the production at the last minute, but ultimately I can only comment on what was presented on the stage, not on what exists merely in the minds of the creators.