‘Armstrong’s War’ play explores human side of trauma

One-actlooks at PTSD on and off the battlefield

Playing at The Grand Theatre until March 25, Armstrong’s War presents a one-act, two-person play about a wheelchair-bound young girl and a physically and mentally scarred soldier.

Played by Amariah Faulkner, Hallie Armstrong is a 12-year-old Girl Scout assigned as a reading partner to 21-year-old Corp. Michael Armstrong, played by Josh Johnston.

The chemistry of the actors onstage brought the characters’ struggle to life and revealed how alone their characters were until meeting one another.

Michael is initially unwilling to be Hallie’s reading partner, especially when she brings a book about a young girl who solves mysteries. But one day, when she brings Stephen Crane’s Civil War novel The Red Badge of Courage, Hallie and Michael start to open up to each other.

Over their six scheduled reading sessions, the connection between the two develops. Johnston’s performance of Michael sold the shifts we see in his character and made us feel the pain he faced.

While playwright Colleen Murphy approaches this transition well within Armstrong’s War, it seems to take too long. For example, we don’t get to know the real Hallie and Michael until much of the play’s action has already passed.

In most productions, this would be fine, but when the plot revolves around this idea of self-perception, it leaves the audience somewhat shortchanged — especially given how much of the runtime is spent with the characters reading from other texts.  

Where the play could’ve ended with demonstrations of the changes made to their perspectives on life and its meaning, we were left with an ending that put all the character development on Hallie’s and Michael’s acceptance that they’d been hurt and moved on.  

Trauma and its dissolution are more nuanced than Murphy’s play projects, and it would’ve been nice if that had been more thoroughly demonstrated.

The need for this in Armstrong’s War was all the more apparent because of its staging.

The play’s set takes a pared-down approach, limiting itself to Michael’s hospital room. As a result, the show emphasizes plot developments through dialogue and subtle clothing changes.

In the beginning, Michael wears a pair of sweatpants and a hoodie and also sleeps underneath the bed with the sheets draped over the side. He ends Armstrong’s War dressed immaculately in uniform trying to rejoin the armed forces, longing to go back to war.

Hallie’s changes are much subtler and more often signaled by dialogue since she wears her Girl Scout outfit during the whole show, boasting her many merit badges.

By the end of the show, this uniform becomes its own badge of courage when we learn she only became wheelchair-bound recently and is challenged by being unable to collect badges for physical prowess like the girls around her.

At first, Hallie claims she was injured in a skiing accident which ended her Olympic dreams. In reality, we learn it was a drunk driving accident, which also claimed her father’s life.

Due to Faulkner’s well-acted optimism held for most of the show, the mystery of Hallie’s struggle is left hidden and is all the more heartbreaking when it’s finally revealed.

Michael helps Hallie confront her past as he does the same with his struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

This shared trauma binds the characters together — even when Michael makes her uncomfortable by swearing and frequently addressing his seriously injured comrade, Robbie. Their newfound relationship strengthened by mutual tragedy allows the characters to broach these difficult subjects with empathy.

Michael’s broken promise to spare Robbie friend from a life of misery should he become gravely injured haunts him; Hallie’s wheelchair haunts her. Hallie and Michael are both their own constant reminders of the past, forcing them to relive their trauma on a daily basis.

The play is a timely reminder that trauma can’t settle itself until it’s directly confronted. The impact of the play really came down to the understated and toned-down performances given by Faulkner and Johnston in the play’s only two roles.

However, its flaws distracted from its overall analysis of trauma.

Both Hallie and Michael were written to reflect the overtaking, brutal and often-ignored effects that trauma and PTSD have on a person. Murphy used these characters to bring to light the hidden nature of pain and how it can change how a person interacts with the world around them.

But she doesn’t take Armstrong’s War in any direction other than the one everyone already knows: trauma is both mentally and physically scarring and benefits from supportive relationships.

It is an all-around skillful take on trauma and PTSD, but falls short of making the matter more concrete. 

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