‘Safer Ground?’: thought-provoking, touching, terrific

Andrew Lewis (left) and Alyssa Mackrith (right) as Canadian soldiers in ‘Safer Ground?’. (Holly Kalyniuk / The Quill)

On February 28th, James Forsythe’s powerful production Safer Ground? premiered at the Evans Theatre. Containing both harrowing and heartwarming verbatim accounts from Afghan refugees and Canadian soldiers, it chronicled radically diverse events in the lives of the two groups and was “in many ways a quintessential Canadian play,” according to Forsythe.

A collection of interviews collected by Forsythe during his sabbatical leave from Brandon University in 2011, the production presented intriguing vantage points of Afghans, Canadian soldiers, and a soldier’s wife. Offering Canadians a glimpse into a day in the Middle East, they recounted shocking tales of women being sexually assaulted in public places simply for being female, and men being beaten for sitting between two women in a vehicle, as opposed to taking a window seat. The plot unreservedly addressed issues like Canada’s lack of patriotism, comparing the greater care received by veterans of the United States military to the treatment of Canadian veterans, and the misunderstood lives of military wives.

Forsythe’s plot highlighted the enormous burdens faced at home by the people left behind, including childrearing, holding a full-time job, dealing with public scorn from Canadians who disagree with the military’s mission, and living with the persisting fear for their spouse’s life. As a stab at flouncy notions of the “weaker” spouse being left behind, Forsythe ironically had the military wife, which was phenomenally and heart-wrenchingly portrayed by Krista Weir, knitting in the background throughout almost the entire play.

Utilizing the audience’s cultural stereotypes and preconceived notions of war, the cast dressed in simple, modern Canadian street clothing, with the exception of shawls worn by the women to symbolize Islamic burkas, which ensured the audience’s attention was on their words and that the strong messages in the script weren’t lost among the typical glitz and glam of the theatrical. The stage was sparsely decorated with pillars, a small movable bench and an elevated platform atop which perched guitarist Bryce Lovenjak, and actors utilized a freeze-frame-like performance style so as not to detract from the actors speaking.

Actors held a notable reverence for the true, jaw-dropping stories they told. “They have to not only portray characters that are a composite of dozens of distinct individuals,” said Foresythe, “but [they] must also cross a cultural, religious and ethnic divide.” Each actor effortlessly transitioned between stories of car bombings to scenes of university students voicing their opinions on war while smoking a joint and singing “Give Peace a Chance” and “The Taliban Can.”

From soldiers justifying asking Canadian citizens why troops are in Afghanistan, to lashing perspectives from former Afghan citizens who have witnessed firsthand the triumph and horrors resulting from Canada’s military presence, the play repeatedly asks the ever-important question of whether or not our military presence overseas is beneficial to Canada and the Middle East, without offering a cut-and-dry conclusion. While both sides of the turf held conflicting views throughout the play and were torn on the matter themselves, they managed to find common ground on ideologies of acceptance and resilience, common themes rejuvenated through Forsythe’s completely autobiographical script.

Entertaining and thought-provoking, Safer Ground? is a must-see, regardless of one’s political or military involvement. While Forsythe and his team could likely never do justice to the inspiring men and women who shared their real-life experiences, the production was as close as it could be, and they were more than well-deserving of their standing ovation on opening night.

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 23, March 5, 2013.