The Soldier Dreams
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 7, 2005
The Soldier Dreams, a play by Daniel MacIvor from the late 1990s, is being given its New York debut by Spiral, Inc. The company deserves nothing but our praise and gratitude for bringing this work to our attention. Why is it that Canadian writers like MacIvor remain mostly marginalized in American theatre?
This is a sharp, affecting, fever dream of a play, set in at least a couple of alternate universes. One is real-time reality, the place where we spend our waking moments, and in it we see the last days in the life of a young gay man named David who is dying of AIDS, in his own bed but hooked up to an IV, attended by a nurse and his four closest family members.
The other location is inside David's head, and just possibly inside the heads of the others on death watch as well. These people include David's lover, Richard; his two sisters, Tish (older than him) and Judy (younger); and Tish's husband, Sam. All—David included—agree that David would rather everyone were dancing, not grimly hovering over his deathbed. And all—again, David included—are soliloquizing, having what a few of them call "moments for David," making sense of a life or, more accurately, what that life meant to them. MacIvor shows us a family with a capacity for caring and understanding no larger or smaller than yours or mine—and exposes the sad, lonely fact that none of us ever knows anyone except ourselves.
So all the "moments for David" are actually about the others. Tish and Richard each fancies her/himself chief mourner; the grudge they've been nursing against one another for years gets exposed in the course of the play, with surprising results. Judy wants to mourn in her own eccentric way. Sam retreats into his journal. Tish wants to make Jell-O. Tish and Judy want to know what happened to the carpet mom promised to them. And everybody wants to know what the unconscious David means when he utters the words "matchbook," "Ottawa," and "German doctor."
MacIvor is masterful as he doles out the bits of David's life—to us and to his characters—making it clear that whatever the medium, there is no way to capture the totality or even a tiny part of another human being. David, we are told, developed an aversion to having his picture taken—he wanted to remember experiences without artificial aids. And so the slide show, the video, and the numerous anecdotes dance around a whole (hole?) that's always much larger. Even the truth that David himself tries to tell us—a story about a student whom he met the night before Tish and Sam's wedding—is elusive, fragmentary, incomplete. Before he can finish, his "real" self has disappeared (without our even noticing), and even what he knew about what he was trying to tell us remains finally unknown and unknowable.
The Soldier Dreams is a delicate, impressionistic, ephemeral play: I found that I was experiencing it on an emotional rather than intellectual level, and when it was done I could still somehow feel it in my guts. It's definitely a play worth doing, and director Janis Powell and her cast and crew have given a good account of it here. Particularly effective are Powell's staging and Tom Crossman's set, which together provide clear boundaries for the worlds of the play (reality vs. the subconscious). Among the actors, Patrick Lacey as David's spirit, watching his body fade away, is perhaps the most vivid presence; Morgan Foxworth (Richard), Timothy Macht (Sam), Janine McGrath (Tish), and Allyson Ryan (Judy) are at times somewhat unsteady in their roles, but each has at least one scene in which they shine, revealing their characters to us with raw and unfettered honesty. Matt Munroe as the student, Shelley Dague as the nurse, and Joseph Schommer as the "real" David dying in his bed complete the ensemble.