Powerful remount of a Canadian classic

A Line in the Sand

By Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef

Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto

March 8 to 27, 2016

Fulfilling the promise of the “naked” season at Factory, A Line in the Sand is a Canadian classic and has been re-staged to pack even more of a wallop than it did in its original productions in 1996. Director Nigel Shawn Williams has put the play into the small Studio theatre, placing the actors in a big sand box flanked on two sides by the audience. With that decision, he has made the play a pressure-cooker performance that strikes us in a visceral way.

The energy that flashes from the first encounter between Canadian soldier Mercer and a Palestinian teenager, Sadiq, never lets up, although the dynamics of the first half of the show are very different from the second half. The setting is somewhere between Iraq and Kuwait in the 1990-91 Gulf War, on a beach where Mercer goes to escape his fellow soldiers at the nearby Canadian base. Morgan David Jones plays Mercer, by turns jumpy, angry, sad, needy, hand on the trigger. Danny Ghantous is Sadiq, fearless, cavalier, an opportunist with pornographic pictures to sell to the soldier and a dreamer who believes he’s bound for a better life in Kansas. In the USA, according to Sadiq, everybody can be rich. “Only lazy people poor in America.”

Much depends on dialogue and body language in this well made two-hander, where mood can shift in a sentence. Guillermo Verdecchia and Marcus Youssef bring a lightness of touch and a seriousness of purpose to this play. Ghantous is a highly credible Sadiq, with flawless accent and a way with words as he shouts “Canada Dry” and sings “Frere Jacques” to win over the cautious Canadian soldier. He smells his need but when Mercer turns on him, Sadiq crumbles.

Jones is equally adept on an emotional scale from stoic to abject. The first act of A Line in the Sand is about the development of a real bond between these two young, men, estranged from their fathers, missing their mothers, and caught in a conflict that makes no sense. Their exchanges are punctuated with blackouts and strobe lighting and the sounds of gunfire  ̶  war scenes captured through the light of an explosion. The beauty of this play is that it takes the political and embeds it in the personal.

Before the intermission the actors, including John Cleland, whose main role is in the second half, step out of the play to circle the stage reciting statements by Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney at the time of the Gulf War and Stephen Harper announcing Canada’s engagement in further middle east conflicts. This interlude serves no dramatic purpose and seems unnecessary: A Line in the Sand resonates with us as powerfully today as it did 20 years ago.

The lights come up on the second act with a Canadian colonel (John Cleland) interrogating Mercer, literally scared stiff, about the murder of a young Arab who has been captured, tortured for no apparent reason and subsequently shot dead in the back. The victim is Sadiq and the language of the report the Colonel reads is graphic. The colonel is, or pretends to be sympathetic to Mercer, who has developed a bad stammer. He tells Mercer he wants to get him off the hook. Jones plays Mercer as completely hollowed out, struggling to maintain a soldierly mien whilst clearly devastated by events. His culpability is not the issue here, so much as the psychological hell he’s arrived in. The colonel completes the job of tearing him down, a process apparently started in the home: Mercer is a foot soldier, but his father is a powerful bureaucrat in the Department of National Defence. The denouement is searing and very affecting.

The sand in which the players are mired is an effective motif: proffered in handfuls as something for nothing, pouring out of a canteen as a phantom life-saving drink of water, or slipping through hands like time running out for salvation. Mercer’s camera becomes a device for establishing truth, where no truth – including who killed Sadiq – can be established. Like the photos that titillate but are no substitute for Mercer’s girlfriend, the camera brings no guarantee of a hard, undeniable reality.

Photo of David Morgan Jones and Danny Ghantous by Dahlia Katz

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