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‘This Is War’ leaves an impression

 Michael Finley Courtney Jones star 'This is War' Signal Ensemble Theatre

Michael Finley and Courtney Jones star in "This is War" at Signal Ensemble Theatre

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‘THIS IS WAR’

HIGHLY
RECOMMENDED

When: Through Sept. 28

Where: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice

Tickets: $20

Info: (773) 698-7389; www.signalensemble.com

Run time: 90 minutes, with no intermission

Updated: September 29, 2013 6:18AM



The title of Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s blistering play — an intimate yet epic look at what happens to soldiers in a war zone — could not be more on target.

“This is War,” now receiving its riveting U.S. premiere by Signal Ensemble Theatre, is a fierce, supremely well-written story of four Canadian soldiers (one of them, not at all incidentally, a woman) who served in Afghanistan. Stationed in a remote area — where the Taliban enemy, the local population and the presumably friendly Afghan National Army were not at all easy to differentiate — it captures the sense of overwhelming tension, fear and confusion involved in the operations of war. But more crucially, it looks at the very human ways in which the soldiers interact, and how fear, heat, sexual tension and the pressure that comes with having to make countless life-or-death choices (a good number of them involving children) pushes them to the breaking point.

In just 90 minutes of tightly coiled drama, Moscovitch (whose fine plays, “East of Berlin” and “The Russian Play” were produced a couple of seasons back at Signal), suggests two distinct perspectives for her story. The events that occurred in the “fog of war” are re-enacted as the soldiers give testimony about what occurred during a particularly bad 24-hour period.

Captain Stephen Hughes (Billy Fenderson, full of edgy swagger and with an explosive temper) is a restless, macho guy whose wife has left him. On the night before a patrol-gone-wrong he kills time playing poker with Master Corporal Tanya Young (Courtney Jones), the tough but vulnerable woman in the group. The daughter of an alcoholic mother, who clearly joined the military because she knew she was headed for a dead-end life (or worse), Tanya knows she shouldn’t have sex with him, but she gives in. She also quickly regrets it. Moscovitch’s expert limning of this character, and Jones’ rubbed-raw performance, are in total synch.

Hughes and Young are overheard by Jonny Henderson (wonderfully played by the boyishly handsome Michael Finley), a virginal 20-year-old with a serious crush on Tanya. He is devastated, and the two men even come to blows (Tyler Rich’s fight choreography is excellent). This, of course, is unacceptable.

Making matters worse is that when all goes to hell during combat, and Henderson is gravely wounded, the rescue helicopter is delayed because a day earlier, Young had called central command to ask if it could be sent to help take a wounded Afghan child to a hospital.

Throughout, it is a discreetly gay medic, Sergeant Chris Anders (played with just the right tense understatement by Dylan Stuckey), who tries to counsel, calm and medicate the soldiers. His valiant, heartfelt efforts are not enough.

Director Ronan Marra orchestrates his exceptional quartet of actors with great precision and directness. Melanie Lancy’s simple but effective camouflage set is ideally lit by Michael C. Smith. And the sustained intensity of this production exerts its hold long after you’ve left the theater.

Email: hweiss@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic



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