Reflections Theatre Ensemble

American audiences are accustomed to seeing World War II treated from our own viewpoint–that of a nation that, while never directly threatened by the Hitler-Tojo forces, burned with anger at the enemy’s assault on our overseas forces starting with the ambush at Pearl Harbor. And we’re used to books, plays, and especially movies that view the war through the British experience–the plucky little nation standing firm under the German firebombings is by now as familiar to us as our own country.

John Murrell’s Waiting for the Parade takes a slightly different tack: it examines the war as seen from Canada. Writing originally for Canadian audiences–Waiting for the Parade was premiered in Canada in 1977–Murrell wanted to retrieve a cultural point of view too often diluted by the glut of English and American influences. As part of the British commonwealth, Canada was unavoidably involved in the war; but it was removed from the action, too–so much so that in the beginning of the hostilities the Canadian prime minister felt he could safely promise that there would never be a draft in his country. That changed, of course; the Second World War changed everything.

One of the most substantial and lasting changes the war produced was among women–and it is among women that Waiting for the Parade takes place. As young, able-bodied men went off to battle, the running of the home front was left largely to their wives and mothers, girlfriends and sisters; Murrell focuses on five such women living in a small Canadian town. Catherine is a hot-blooded, hometown glamour girl working in a munitions plant and pining for the young husband who’s just gone overseas; her friend Eve, a schoolteacher, is a quieter type, married to a middle-aged man whose enthusiasm for the war appalls her. Margaret is a middle-aged widow with two sons–the older of whom has enlisted, leaving Margaret to cope inadequately with raising a rebellious teenager on a limited budget. Janet is a take-charge busybody who bullies the other gals through a routine of determined cheery volunteerism–making bandages and fruit baskets, arranging send-off parties for new recruits and welcome-home parties for the returning wounded–while chafing with her own unacknowledged shame that her husband has been exempted from duty because “he performs an essential service”: reading newscasts on the radio. Finally, there is Marta, a German immigrant–a Canadian citizen all her adult life, suddenly stigmatized by her accent and her heritage.

Through the interaction of these five women, Murrell paints a portrait of a “good war” as lived on the sidelines. There is plenty of laughter here–the sensitive Eve’s infatuation with Leslie Howard (and her sudden fascination with aviation following his fatal plane crash), Catherine’s wisecracking humor, Janet’s ludicrous den-mothering as she prods the other women through an air-raid drill. But there is also trouble: Marta’s aged father is arrested as a Nazi sympathizer and put in a provincial prison camp; Margaret’s younger son is also imprisoned, for passing out “communist antiwar propaganda.” (Praised by Eve for the bravery of both her sons, the soldier and the pacifist, Margaret says with quiet desperation: “I don’t know about that.”) And there are more ambiguous emotions, too: Eve’s inability to comprehend the vicarious war lust of her middle-aged husband and her adolescent schoolboys, Catherine’s affair with a munitions worker–a bittersweet sublimation for the longing she feels for the husband she may never see again.

Plays about war from the perspective of the women who stayed behind have been done before, of course, but rarely with such toughness and lack of sentimentality. Murrell’s vision is informed by the feminist and antiwar movements of the 1960s and ’70s, but he never seems untrue to the reality of his 1940s characters; he treats his women neither as traditional stereotypes nor as revisionist symbols–but simply as people.

The play is structured as a cinematic montage of slice-of-life vignettes and presentational monologues, accompanied by an array of period music: German lieder and American swing, hymns and military tunes. The cumulative effect is a portrait both of a bygone era and of war as an eternal, heroic, but incomprehensible part of the human condition.

Michael Ryczek’s staging for the Reflections Theatre Ensemble has several things working against it from the start: most problematically, a truly ugly set that forces the actors into corners nearly the whole time; rather than the flowing montage Murrell has written, the play comes off as a series of clunky, stiffly paced acting exercises. But there are several performances of real warmth and intelligence–Rosemary Brcich as Catherine, Marsha Swope as Eve, and (despite a bad German accent) Judy Rothnagel as Marta; and Murrell’s script is well worth an audience’s time.