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theatre review

A scene from Armstrong's War.John Lauener

A 21-year-old wounded Canadian soldier named Armstrong. A precocious 12-year-old Pathfinder in a wheelchair named Armstrong. Six weeks, and six visits, where the girl reads to the soldier from The Red Badge of Courage at a rehab hospital in Ottawa.

Armstrong's War, Colleen Murphy's 2013 two-hander, sounds almost unbearably treacly on paper. But if you can get past the Hallmark Channel premise, you'll find a play more cleverly constructed than it first appears that explores complex issues in an affecting, accessible way.

Corporal Michael Armstrong (a soulful Paolo Santalucia) is lying under the hospital bed when Halley Armstrong (Alex McCulloch) first rolls into his room to read for him. Though Michael signed up for the visits, the Afghanistan mission veteran now wants to be left alone – a request that the unrelated Armstrong girl finds extremely annoying given the lengths she went to book a mobility bus.

Chatty, confident Halley is nothing if not persistent, however – and, with a crucial community service badge hanging in the balance, she returns the following week with a bag full of war-themed books.

Murphy's play becomes more interesting after it gets over this artificial obstacle and Michael and Halley begin to read to one another from Stephen Crane's 1895 Civil War novel, connecting with it on different levels.

Inspired by Crane – who wrote The Red Badge of Courage at age 23, without having actually experienced war – Michael starts to write his own short story based on what happened to him and a friend in Afghanistan. It's more gruesome and filled with adult language – but he implores Halley to read it to him on her next visit, complicating their friendship.

The twists in Murphy's script come as we try to figure out how true Michael's fiction is – and how fictional the stories Halley spins about her own life are. The play becomes less about Canada's mission in Afghanistan and more about the narratives we all tell ourselves about survival and the value of life.

Santalucia's performance as the injured soldier is the main reason to see the Canadian Rep Theatre production in Toronto. It's physically very impressive – he slowly and convincingly heals from week to week, moving the furniture in his room around the stage in between scenes with more and more ease as the show progresses.

As Halley, third-year University of Toronto student Alex McCulloch is making her professional theatre debut, solidly. Her portrayal of the know-it-all motormouth falls into sitcom cliche at times, but deepens later in the play as she struggles to comprehend and accept Michael's less than sugar-coated worldview.

Though he missed the opportunity to cast a disabled actor, Ken Gass directs a clear production on a set by Marian Wihak, which surrounds the Ottawa hospital with sand that conjures the Afghanistan that is ever-present in Michael's mind. Armstrong's War – which debuted at the Arts Club in Vancouver and has had several productions across Canada – is not a sexy play, but it's strong one from the Siminovitch Prize-nominated Murphy.

I'm glad Gass's new Canadian Rep company exists to bring works like these that are falling through the cracks of other theatre companies in town to Toronto.

How great would it be if Factory's board of directors and Gass could bury the hatchet after their much-publicized falling out – and Canadian Rep could become a resident company in the building that Gass called home for so long?

What were they fighting about anyway?

Armstrong's War continues to Dec. 6 (

Follow me on Twitter: @nestruck

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