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Soldier On is a large-cast inspirational drama that seeks to both depict the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on veterans and their loved ones, and to tout the healing powers of theatre.

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  • Soldier On
  • Written and Directed by: Jonathan Lewis
  • Genre: Drama
  • Actors: Kirk Bowett, Nicholas Clarke, Thomas Craig, Mark Griffin, Rekha John-Cheriyan, Cassidy Little, Merle Newell, Scotty Newlands, David Solomon, Janaya Stephens
  • Company: Soldiers’ Arts Academy
  • Venue: Berkeley Street Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, Dec. 8

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“We want to be the Invictus-bloody-Games of the arts!” declares actor David Solomon in his passionate curtain speech at the end of Soldier On, the British import playing Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre. Solomon is referring not just to the play he’s acting in, but to its co-producer, the London-headquartered Soldiers’ Arts Academy.

That’s a pretty bold ambition: to give military veterans an artistic outlet to compare with the major international sporting event created by Prince Harry. But there’s no lack of boldness or ambition in the company’s signature show, a large-cast inspirational drama that seeks to both depict the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder on veterans and their loved ones, and to tout the healing powers of theatre.

It may, in fact, be too ambitious: there are so many characters and stories being told in Jonathan Lewis’s play that they tend to pull focus from one another. On top of that, writer-director Lewis tells them in the context of a play-within-a-play, in which the line between the real and the pretend is sometimes confusingly blurred.

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Yet for all that, when it comes down to individual scenes and performances, Soldier On is quite effective. The cast of 17 – mostly British, but with a sprinkling of Canadians – is solid and includes vets-turned-actors who hold their own impressively alongside the seasoned pros.

Solomon portrays Harry, a director tasked with staging a collectively created play as therapy for a group of PTSD-inflicted vets, as well as partners and parents of soldiers. As this motley bunch share their personal experiences to build the script, we get glimpses into the way the trauma has blighted their civilian lives.

They also bring that trauma into the rehearsal hall. It finds itself expressed in outbursts of violence and emotional breakdowns. The group’s joking cynic, Woody (played with suitable edge by Canadian expat Cassidy Little), turns out to be seething with unresolved rage. The taciturn older officer, Tom (played expertly by Lewis himself), slowly lets his reserve slip to reveal his vulnerability.

Back at home, we see PTSD’s toll on marriage, as a damaged vet (a brawny but sensitive Mark Griffin) tries to reach out to his estranged wife (Zoe Zak). Indeed, much of the play concerns itself with relationships, including that between a bitter mother (the superb Rekha John-Cheriyan) and her soldier son (Scotty Newlands).

Woody isn’t the only cynic. Len (Thomas Craig of Murdoch Mysteries fame), the lovably gruff legionnaire in charge of supervising the project, regards it as “airy-fairy” stuff – until, inevitably, he gets chomped on by the acting bug.

Lewis has been diligent about showing us a range of characters, including a young woman with Asperger syndrome (Hayley Thompson) and a trans reservist (Newlands again). He’s also allowed for some quietly poignant moments amid the big emotional ones. There’s a memorable scene with Kirk Bowett, a real vet who lost an arm in Iraq. Playing T.C., a former musician, Bowett picks up a discarded guitar and strums awkwardly on it with his prosthetic hand, while reminiscing about the instruments he used to be able to play.

I was less enamoured of the show’s drill-style movement sequences, choreographed by Lily Howkins, and the occasional treacly songs.

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Soldier On was well-received when it toured Britain and played an off-West End engagement in London last year. Certainly, it’s an admirable effort to show us what wars do to the people whose job is to fight them and to give those ex-soldiers a voice. It would be stronger, however, if it was less concerned with showing us a breadth of experience and instead offered us a little more depth. Then it might not be just a noble endeavour, but a powerful piece of theatre as well.

Soldier On continues to Dec. 8. (canadianstage.com)

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