The setup: Mary's Wedding is a contemporary play set during and just after World War I. This partially historic romance/dream/action adventure about a young Canadian couple has been the most widely produced play in Canada in the decade since its première.
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The execution: Stephen Massicotte started out writing about the devastating March-April 1918 Battle of Moreuil Wood in France, for which Gordon Muriel Flowerdew, an officer in Canada's Lord Strathcona's Horse, was famously awarded the Victoria Cross for leading "the last great cavalry charge." Flowerdew and 70 percent of his squadron were killed under relentless shelling and machine-gun fire. Despite Allied losses, the German troops were sufficiently battered (mostly by mounted Canadians going medieval on them with sabers) that they withdrew rather than crossing the L'Avre River to Amiens (where the Hundred Days Offensive began that August, leading to November's armistice).
In the hands of a good playwright, this is a gripping story on its own, following fictional young enlisted horseman Charlie Edwards as he slogs through trenches as backup infantry under Flowerdew's command, facing his fears and doing what needs to be done until they're able to take to horse again shortly before the charge. But as he worked on the script, Massicotte shifted focus to Charlie's budding relationship with girlfriend Mary Chalmers, who receives letters from Charlie and waits and worries at home.
As Charlie explains in the play's first moments, with the casual demeanor of a curtain speech, what the audience is about to share is Mary's dream the night before her wedding. The genius of the dream setting is that appearance, reality, and symbolism can shift the way they do best on stage, and because we all know how dreams can be, it feels even more seamless and natural than usual.
Mary's dream, which we learn is a recurring one, begins, as Charlie explains, "at the end:" with the troubling, unexplained image of Charlie and his horse alone in the rain, illuminated by lightning, Charlie calling out to Mary, his words drowned by the storm. But within a few moments, the two young people meet for the first time, taking shelter from a thunderstorm in a rustic barn. Awkwardly, sweetly, they chat. We don't know why particular details are the ones that work their way to the surface of the dream, but of course they do turn out to be important.
Soon, Mary realizes she must get home, rain or not, or her mother will worry. The lightning has passed over, so Charlie takes her home on horseback. Their shy attraction and inexperience give the scene a fresh, innocent erotic charge rarely seen in plays around here. (Or else I keep going to the wrong ones.)
Everything I've read about other productions of Mary's Wedding praise the simplicity of the acting and the set design as the factors that give the sometimes surreal narrative such a genuine quality. That's definitely the case at Theatre Artists Studio as well. There isn't a real horse in sight, and scenic artist Debra Mather-Boehm's wooden structures that fill in for them when needed isolate the bodies of actors Kent Welborn and Heidi Haggerty in a way that tells both the audience and the characters what's really going on in a way they wouldn't dare put into conscious words.
Massicotte breaks us in slowly to the derangement of time and space as Mary and Charlie become better acquainted and the war begins to intrude, so that by the time Charlie boards an ocean liner that's been painted gray to serve as troop transport and Mary waves goodbye even though she wasn't really there, we're just about prepared for Haggerty to appear on deck, still in her white nightdress, as then-Sgt. Flowerdew. The dialogue reinforces how the dream almost makes sense: Charlie still sees Mary everywhere, and she longs to be where he is, experiencing his loneliness and danger.
Caila Loehr's lighting and the sound design by Rick Hamouris and director Carol MacLeod (The Unexpected Man) also help delineate what's going on and make it clear why and when rainstorms become artillery barrages and sacks of flour become sandbags. It's never really confusing at all -- as in your own dreams, you're in charge of what you perceive, even if you don't realize it. And just like when other people tell you their dreams, it seems obvious what's meant.
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Massicotte also places a literary pushpin in that spot where it became too sad and foolish to write about war in terms of romantic glory -- right there, between Tennyson and Auden. What was exam-prep material for generations of Canadian schoolkids is now one of those plays that helps Americans learn that other countries have history, too, while making it into art that leaves a memorable stamp on the heart.
The verdict: MacLeod leads the company in a polished yet spontaneous blend of expansive lyricism and precisely focused horror. It's a fine play done well. I would leave it up to parents whether it's suitable for middle-size children -- the descriptions of violence and death in battle, though nothing is literally "shown," are quite disturbing, perhaps even more than the graphic imagery of a video game.
Mary's Wedding continues through Sunday, February 2, at 4848 E. Cactus Rd, #406, in Scottsdale. Tickets range from $10 to $20; order here or call 602-765-0120.