Hunter gathers

Maureen Hunter’s Wild Mouth recounts war’s personal toll

WILD MOUTH by Maureen Hunter, directed by R.H. Thomson (Tarragon, 30 Bridgman). Previews to Tuesday (January 8), opens Wednesday (January 9), runs to February 10. Pwyc-$38. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN

The war-is-hell truism isn’t just for those on the front lines. Those back home – as we still realize today – feel the chilling effect just as deeply.

That fact suffuses Maureen Hunter’s Wild Mouth, though her play is about the First World War and a Saskatchewan farming family, the Reids, halfway around the world from the battlefields.

With one son already dead, another fighting and a third who wants to enlist, the Reids understand the potential for loss.

Enter the husband’s sister Anna, who has sacrificed a son on the battlefield and has become virulently critical of the war. She needs to know what’s at the heart of the war experience, from someone who’s jumped into that black hole.

“The play explores the grief and violence that’s opened up in this family as a result of the war,” explains Sarah Allen, who plays the family’s only daughter, Claire.

Things become even tenser in the Reid household when both Claire and Anna are attracted to Bohdan, a Ukrainian Canadian who’s returned home a decorated soldier.

“At the beginning of the script, Maureen cites C.P. Snow about the fragility of civilization. He muses that ‘there’s not much between us and the horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish.’

“Wild Mouth examines what happens when that coat of varnish starts to crack,” says Allen, a National Theatre School grad making her Toronto debut.

The young Claire, she notes, feels she hasn’t done enough and wants somehow to be part of the war effort, if only to thank the soldiers for their sacrifices.

“That’s why she’s drawn to Bohdan, I think. He’s a hero to her, and she wants to help him, care for him, maybe even coddle him. But she hadn’t counted on her aunt entering the picture.

“What Claire discovers under her own proper social veneer and romantic dreams is jealousy, a pretty horrible emotion when it’s directed at someone she loves. She begins doubting herself and her morals, trying to reconcile the conflicting feelings that drive her.”

One element of the script that impresses Allen is its layered subtext.

“Every time I read it I discover something new. What I thought at first was a strong anti-war play has turned into a much deeper piece about humanity and what draws us to the madness that is war.

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“There’s often a suggestion of something that undercuts the words themselves, something that’s heavier under the surface. At first, you might think this is a play about a nice family in rural Saskatchewan and the crazy aunt who comes to visit. But we’ve discovered that it’s a harder play than that.”

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