Soldier's Heart Written by David French Directed by Bill Glassco Starring Darren Keay, Randy Hughson and Oliver Becker At Tarragon Theatre, Toronto Rating: **
David French's new play, the fifth in his Mercer saga, is set in a Newfoundland railway station and the program warns us that "the author has taken liberties with the route and schedule of the Caribou." That must be the only historical material with which French has tampered, for Soldier's Heart is mainly a documentary about Newfoundland's role in the First World War badly disguised as drama.
Ostensibly, it is the prequel to Leaving Home; Of the Fields, Lately; Salt-Water Moon and 1949, which followed Jacob Mercer and his family from Newfoundland to Toronto. Here, we are back in 1924, two years before Jacob woos Mary in Salt-Water Moon. He's a 16-year-old lad, played by Darren Keay, who is trying to run off to St. John's after a fight with his father, Esau (Oliver Becker). But the Caribou is running late, so Esau is able to catch up with him at the Bay Roberts station and finds him discussing the war with station master Bert Taylor (Randy Hughson).
It seems Dad refuses to talk about the war, despite his nightmares, drunken conversations with his dead brother and other erratic behaviour. In a moment when he apparently did not recognize his son, Esau took a knife to Jacob's throat and Jacob fled. Now, in a bid to get him to come home, Esau finally opens up, but not before French has carefully laid the groundwork for you.
"Tell me about Gallipoli, Father. I know it's a peninsula in Turkey," Jacob says, in one of the painfully obvious bits of exposition that make up the first half of the play. Esau, brother Will and Bert signed up with the Newfoundland Regiment in 1914, crossed the Atlantic on a troop ship, did basic training in Scotland and learned the horrific stupidity of war at Gallipoli, where some British soldiers froze to death because their winter uniforms had already been sent home.
From there, the Newfoundlanders were shipped to France, where they were among the troops who participated in what has come to be known as "The Great Fuck-Up," the battle at Beaumont-Hamel where wave after wave of British soldiers were sent toward the German lines in broad daylight on July 1, 1916.
It seems something pretty nasty happened to Dad that day in No Man's Land. And with Bert alternately prodding or restraining him, depending on the demands of the action, Esau is now going to reveal to his son why he suffers so badly from shell shock. "What they used to call soldier's heart," Bert explains.
When Jacob confronts his father with his own memory of the day Esau returned from war to a 10-year-old son he didn't recognize, some dramatic emotion does rise from this history lesson. And, as Bert and Esau relay the details of Beaumont-Hamel, that tale of senseless slaughter on the first day of the Somme offensive inevitably proves chilling. But the dramatic situation is contrived, the plot of a long-hidden secret is predictable and the final revelations are telegraphed long before their arrival.
Bill Glassco, French's long-time director but apparently not his dramaturge, offers a straightforward production that draws strong work from the cast. In the simple confrontation that French has constructed between a father and son (with hints of bloody familial sacrifices in their biblical names), the actors can discover a good amount about the characters. Keay finds not only the obvious naiveté in young Jacob but also the streaks of both stubbornness and slyness that he uses to force his father to talk. Becker, although he slipped occasionally at Tuesday's opening as he tried to deliver French's rather poetic passages of description, makes a suitably haunted Esau, while Hughson balances him well with a more stolid version of Bert.
No one can remain unmoved by the evocation of Beaumont-Hamel: As Esau tells Jacob, 750 Newfoundlanders went over the top; 40 appeared unwounded at roll call the next day. But if there's agony in Soldier's Heart, it is not because of any great artistry on the playwright's part. Sometimes, just the facts of history are enough to make you cry. A Soldier's Heart continues at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre until Dec. 16. For information call: 416-531-1827.