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Play looks at war told from both fronts
It was a bumpy ride, with a dangerous load in the back of the truck, but Nellie Bullock was up to the task.
Sitting behind the wheel, Bullock was one of the many women during the Second World War who served on the home front.
She hauled ammunition from the bunker in Kamloops to the Vernon Army Camp.
“Because women were then not allowed to fight, they were used in the military as clerks, secretaries, mechanics and truck drivers, while the men were overseas,” said local playwright Michael Poirier, who has written a play based on the roles of men and women during wartime that is about to be staged in Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre.
Although a fictional account, War on the Home Front is set in the still standing Camp Vernon, which was used as a training facility in the First and Second World Wars.
At the height of training in the Second World War, there were in excess of 7,000 troops based at the camp, said Poirier, whose main character in the play, Bullock, is also based on a real person.
“In real life, Nellie Bullock was my mother,” said the playwright. “She used to drive to the ammunition storage in Kamloops and also drove for a commander in Chilliwack.”
In the play, Bullock (played by Bev Steeves) is hired by the base commander to work out of the army camp.
“Nellie is a pain in the commander’s rear,” said Poirier, who pulled from stories of his actual mom to flesh out her character. “My mom was a rounder and quite the character. In 1944, Vernon had seven dance halls downtown and mom would be at the dance hall getting into trouble.”
War on the Home Front examines life between these women and men serving at home and also intermittently travels overseas to Italy where three soldiers are fighting on the front line.
“Realities and truths are two of life’s facts that are sometimes hard to accept,” said Poirier. “My intent was to show what people here were going through during the war, but also the soldiers overseas in the heat of battle.”
Set primarily in the commander’s office, which is overseen by Col. Hanson (Bob Chamberlain) and his aide, Capt. Stewart (Kelly Winston), the play also follows Pte. Mary Carlton (Caitlin Krahn), who serves as the colonel’s secretary and is a member of the CWAC (Canadian Women’s Army Corp.)
“The staff have mixed feelings towards their duties during this trying time,” said Poirier. “They are all trying to find their place.”
Meanwhile, three young soldiers, Pte. Swift (Gavin Opp), Pte. Carlton (Spencer Freeman-Marsh), and Cpl. Granger (Sheldon Graham) are in the middle of a battlefield in Italy witnessing the horrors of war.
“My step-dad was in the Second World War and some of the things he told me, stories and memories, are in the play,” said Poirier.
“One story he told me was when they jumped off the boat, a soldier lost his leg on the beach from being hit by mortar. They amputated his leg in a bar.”
Poirier was also advised on army protocol from a retired sergeant major who served in Afghanistan.
“The whole arena is different now. Now it’s become more of a family. You make friends. Back then you were thrown into a boat all together and landed on a beach. You loaded your guns and started shooting. You didn’t make friends. It was ‘I’ll fight with you, but if you die, you’re another soldier.’”
As one can imagine, bringing all these experiences from the page to the stage was a challenge.
After being named a finalist in the 2012 Theatre BC Playwriting competition, Poirier received varying critiques from the competition’s two jurors.
“One loved the interaction between the war and the army camp, and the other one said to throw out the war scenes and set it just at the army camp,” he said.
It was after receiving what he calls a “brutal critique” from Michael Armstrong, who is in the drama department at the University of Victoria, that Poirier took his script home and cleaned it up using both viewpoints.
“My director (Matt Brown) and assistant director (Kristine Larson) said they liked some of the parts I took out,” said Poirier. “The process of working it out on the stage is helping to make the play better. I also rely on the actors to paint the picture. It has also been good to have the military people helping me.”
War on the Home Front opens at the Powerhouse Theatre on Tuesday, July 29 and runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. until Saturday Aug. 2. Tickets ($22/adult, $17.50 senior/cadet/student) are available at the Ticket Seller at 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca. Warning: the play contains gunshots and loud noises.