- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2004

The trouble with the Iraqi conflict? A dearth of wartime romance. Not like World War I, where soldiers and their sweethearts courted to the strains of “Lili Marlene,” and the prevailing sense of doom was misted over with ingenuous devotion to both girl and country.

The images of a visibly pregnant Pfc. Lynndie England at her court-martial trial, not to mention her leering poses with Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, are reasons enough to send you running to the Theater Alliance’s production of “Mary’s Wedding,” which portrays love during war with innocence, grace and finely tuned emotion.

The production of Canadian playwright Stephen Massicotte’s dreamlike, stunningly visual play is further enlivened by beautifully etched performances by Kathleen Coons and Aubrey Deeker as the lovers — Mary, a recent transplant to Canada from England, and Charlie, a rough-hewn country boy with an ardor for horses. Their feelings, which blindside them on a horseback ride in a dramatic electrical storm, put you in mind of the grand passion of Catherine and Heathcliff in “Wuthering Heights,” the vastness of their love mirroring the wild tangle of nature.

Only it is the Canadian countryside, not the English moors, that is the setting for “Mary’s Wedding,” which traces in nimble loops and arcs the story of Mary and Charlie from their first meeting to his heroism in WWI battles (particularly the charge at Moreuil Wood) and, finally, to the tragic fallout from war. Mr. Massicotte takes a nonlinear approach to the story, starting with Mary’s wedding two years after the war and going backward and forward, giving the play the time-suspended dynamics of a dream.

This feeling is heightened by the production’s sets and soundscape, which are simple yet richly evocative. Director Jeremy Skidmore has chosen his visual elements with a connoisseur’s eye — the stage is shrouded in dusty plum light, an ever-changing horizon visible from the eaves of a barn, and scattered about are a few wooden posts that stand in for everything from charging horses to battlefield barricades. With these stark, exquisitely chosen elements, Mr. Skidmore creates a mood at once timeless and wistfully nostalgic.

This atmosphere is the perfect setting for Mary and Charlie’s romance, which defies all logic and convention. From their first encounter — let alone their first tender kiss — they enter each other’s heads and hearts.

They come to each other in dreams and see the face of their beloved in the trees, the church bells, in the faces of others. For Mary, the wind is Charlie’s voice in her ear, while Charlie finds Mary throughout the French battlefields, even in the kind visage of his commander, Lt. Gordon Muriel Flowerdew (Miss Coons).

Yet, as Mary discovers, a love that was brief and relied mostly on imagination and longing is so intoxicating that it lulls you into living in the past, safely inside your head. The ultimate expression of their love turns out not to be in fulfillment, but in letting go of what was.

The final speech, where they both awaken from the dream of their romance, is rendered with such unsullied emotion you cannot help but get a bit weepy — not just for the dulcet despair of Charlie and Mary’s fate, but for yourself. They just don’t make love like that anymore.

Miss Coons and Mr. Deeker have the nearly impossible task of portraying heart-stopping romance, and they do a masterful job of capturing the heady feelings without once stepping into the glop of sentiment. They are as adept at playing the love story at its giggly, awkward early stages as they are when love transforms them into something noble and keener. Their souls seem to expand right along with their soaring hearts.

****

WHAT: “Mary’s Wedding” by Stephen Massicotte

WHERE: Theater Alliance, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 5.

TICKETS: $25 to $20

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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