This play is vulgar.
I’m going to start off with a major spoiler and I’m going to keep dropping spoilers because there’s no way to say what I want to say about Wet without doing so.
In Wet, playwright David James Brock tells the story of Burns, a Canadian soldier who serves in Afghanistan, suffers a traumatic incident, and comes home good and fucked up. Back in Chilliwack, Burns can’t speak, move on her own, or feed herself, but her husband Sweetie does his best to trigger her memory of language and to wring some financial support out of the feds. Burns’s injury may be more psychological than physical.
I’ve heard about numerous cases in which Veterans Affairs has been accused of failing to adequately care for injured and traumatized troops. A lot of this criticism has focused on accusations that VA doesn’t adequately address soldier’s mental-health issues. So Brock’s subject area is rich and worth exploring.
But the playwright treats this material as it he’s constructing a ride at the PNE, creating one hyperventilating, sensationalistic moment after another. There’s a fair bit of erotic Skyping in Wet, including a virtual conjugal visit when Burns is still overseas. Fair enough. But when Sweetie tries to rape his disabled wife, the moment is pure, souped-up melodrama. And it vapourizes any sympathy you might have had for Sweetie to that point.
There’s more, including sustained threats of murder and suicide—both from a mentally ill character who’s carrying a gun. A struggle involving a knife results in bloodshed. Innocents get killed. The climactic moment is a piercing scream.
Yes, terrible things happen, but piling so many on top of one another reduces their impact.
Within scenes, rhythms are artificially inflated. When Sweetie is trying to help Burns relearn speech, for instance, he is relentless—almost manic—in his insistence that she repeat words after him. In this production, that mania may partly be a result of the way that Chelsea Haberlin has directed the scene, but the essential falsity is in the writing.
I have no reason to doubt that playwright Brock genuinely cares about vets but, the way he frames this story, he’s not doing them a lot of favours. In Wet, he presents three soldiers. All of them, it seems, are mentally unbalanced before war traumatizes them further, which weakens any case Brock might be trying to make about their mistreatment or exploitation.
On the upside—and there is an upside—Haberlin and her team use space innovatively in this Itsazoo production. The show takes place in the basement of the Russian Hall and, for the opening scenes in Afghanistan, set designer Jenn Stewart has constructed a big-ass tent down there. The subsequent scenes, which take place in Burns and Sweetie’s basement apartment, unfold in the Hall’s adapted kitchen. (The audience walks from one space to the other.)
There is a weird problem with the apartment space, though: Stewart has placed chairs for the audience around the perimeter, but they’re so close together that you can’t shift your position without renegotiating your relationship with your neighbours’ thighs.
To continue with the strengths, there is integrity in all of the performances. Praneet Akilla, who plays Burns’s army buddy Tom, starts off so mannered and nutty in the Afghanistan scenes that I wondered why Burns was having anything to do with him. But that problem starts with the writing. And I never doubted that there was an active mental life going on inside Akilla’s Tom.
Similarly, Matthew Macdonald-Bain does a solid job of negotiating Sweetie’s extremities. And As Burns, Genevieve Fleming delivers the most naturalistic and persuasive performance.
Still, for the most part, Wet annoyed me.
WET By David James Brock. Directed by Chelsea Haberlin. An Itsazoo production. At the Russian Hall on Saturday, May 12. Continues until May 28.
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