James MacDonald doesn’t think history is just about reading the dates, statistics and facts. Instead, he thinks it’s all about why events past still have an impact on us today.
That idea is one of many put toward Western Canada Theatre’s latest production, Vimy.
Director MacDonald will stage a production that tells the story of four soldiers and a nurse from across Canada and their experiences surrounding the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
The play is mostly set in a field hospital where nurse Clare, who is from Nova Scotia and at one point presents an adamant defence of her province as the birthplace of hockey, tends to injured and shell-shocked soldiers.
Clare is portrayed by Vancouver actor Lucy McNulty in the play. She told KTW the audience will get to see her character before, during and after the war, and watch her fall in love, be devastated by the war’s effects and live with the memory of her lost romance.
“She’s the character that is holding the rest of these characters together. Being that container — the foundation or groundwork, just silent and strong,” McNulty said.
One character the nurse must face off with is Mike, a Blood tribe member from Alberta who, as Mike’s portrayer Christopher Mejaki describes, is a proud warrior.
“He really goes for it. He takes pride in fighting for his country and for the people — and I feel, his people,” he said.
Mejaki, an Ojibway/Odawa actor from the Wikwemikong Unceded Indian Reserve in Ontario, said the play presents some unique historical moments for which he can use his own experience.
“There are moments where the other person, who is not native, is almost trying to attack me, whether it’s out of ignorance or just because they feel they can,” he said.
“Mike’s character shows so much strength and has this warriorness to him, even though at that time it might have been hard to be Indigenous, as it may be more or less now — but the willingness to want to fight for the country — I use that and I think about my life. There’s so much perseverance,” he said.
The character Mejaki plays is based on a real person, as are many others in the play.
According to MacDonald, in creating the play, his playwright colleague Vern Thiessen used diaries, journals and letters to create Vimy’s characters.
MacDonald would know. He worked with Thiessen the first time the play was staged back in 2007 and with the coming WCT performance, will direct it for a second time.
The first was in Edmonton in 2007. MacDonald had heard Thiessen was writing a play about Vimy and approached him wanting to push it toward production. It later premiered at the Citadel Theatre.
With the coming 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, MacDonald believes now is the time to stage the play once again, and that the stage is a compelling format for a story like Vimy, rather than a film or television production.
“I think you’re able to identify more with what the characters are going through in the theatre. You’re not observing them from afar — you’re part of what they’re going through,” he said.
The real-life-based characters are a part of the play’s authenticity. Another part is how the actors portray soldiers — having been trained by two military advisors who taught things such as how to hold a rifle, conduct drills and other technical elements, according to MacDonald.
The challenges of bringing scenes set 100 years ago to life include the expected, such as period-accurate costumes and props, but also the settings.
“We couldn’t possibly recreate where this play takes place,” MacDonald said, listing off locales such as the field hospital, several different battlefields and provinces across Canada.
“So what we’re doing on stage, with very simple elements, is try to provoke people’s imagination of what that battle would have been like and what the circumstances were like.”
In addition to McNulty and Mejaki, the cast also includes Nathan Carroll as Sid, Mark Ford as Jean-Paul and Bert, Jacob Woike as Will and Gaelan Beatty as Laurie.
Vimy will be shown at Sagebrush Theatre, 821 Munro St., from Thursday, Oct. 11, to Saturday, Oct. 20.
Tickets are $39 and available through the Kamloops Live box office, 1025 Lorne St., 250-374-5483 and online at kamloopslive.ca.