There's an old joke about Canadians that goes: How do you get 100 Canadians out of the swimming pool on a hot day? You say, "Get out of the pool, please." The joke is an obvious and not-so-clever attempt to capture the unstintingly polite and acquiescent nature of Canadians — sort of like Stephen Massicotte's historical war story-cum-romance, Mary's Wedding.
Which is not to say that Echo Theatre Company's production is a bad time. Director Eric Little has done everything in his power to add oomph to the show, beginning with the powerhouse acting duo of Magan Wiles and Ben Nordstrom as Mary and Charlie, the loving couple torn apart by World War I. Massicotte's script steps backward and forward through time and place, alternating between the early days of Mary and Charlie's courtship in Canada and Charlie's service in France as a cavalryman. Little transforms the chronological leaps into a strength through the remarkably well-choreographed use of Dominique Gallo's lights and Kelly Kerr's sound design, to create an instant and near-flawless sense of place; it also imparts some movement to the story, which takes place in an uninterrupted flow with no set change.
Mary's WeddingThrough April 20 at the Johnson Hall Theater in the Third Baptist Church, 620 North Grand Boulevard. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students or two for $20; $18 for seniors). Call 314-225-4329 or visit www .echotheatrecompany.org.
Nordstrom gives the Canadian farm boy a guileless charm and a romantic's fire. Charlie's favorite poem is a badly remembered version of Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade — only the crash and drama stick in his brain, while the death goes unnoticed. Some might call that clumsy foreshadowing, but Nordstrom makes it painless through sheer talent.
As the English émigré Mary Chalmers, Wiles creates an upper-crust babe D.H. Lawrence would have derided as obvious, but here too, talent wins out. Dressed in a white nightgown throughout the play, Wiles also portrays Charlie's sergeant, war hero Gordon Muriel Flowerdew. A ramrod-straight back, a slightly locked jaw and the imaginary weight of a cigar in her hand and suddenly Wiles, still in gown, is a career soldier.
Perhaps it's battle fatigue on my part, but the war portion of Mary's Wedding does feel forced. There's a war on television, in the movies, in the papers, online and, more and more often of late, on the stage. That war is horrible for the participants, difficult for those left behind, senseless, awful, sometimes necessary for the greater good, capable of inspiring the imagination even as it destroys the soul — all of it is here in Mary's Wedding, and stated in a polite and obvious manner that never rises above the din of daily life.
The love story is far more powerful, both dramatically and performance-wise. The image of Wiles and Nordstrom, back-to-back onstage but separated by an ocean, as Mary and Charlie switch off reading and writing the same letter, is far more affecting than any detonation. In their eyes is the conspiratorial nature of true love: two people standing bravely against the world with only the other for support. That is a power that the stage — that the world — wants more of right now. Mary's Wedding touches on it, but then lets go.