Grappling with civil war

Wajdi Mouawad’s A Bomb in the Heart gets personal with story about immigrant teenager

Those familiar with Downstage know that the theatre company’s mandate is to present thought-provoking plays that create conversations around social issues. Its latest production the English-language premiére of A Bomb in the Heart by Québecois playwright Wajdi Mouawad is about Wahab a 19-year-old whose family came to Canada because their home country was embroiled in a civil war.

The play might not be quite what you expect though because it’s an individual’s story rather than an issue-based play.

“I think there’s something really interesting about how people become citizens and how people become Canadians” says Simon Mallett Downstage’s artistic director about why the play appealed to him. “But also what history what belief system what experiences they carry with them into that journey and how that defines who they become in our society and ultimately how that defines who we become as a society.”

While the play is Canadian it’s set up in a way that can be meaningful in many places. Ishan Davé who plays Wahab explains that the details of his character’s home country and its conflicts are intentionally vague which helps the play resonate across time and cultures. “The nature of war and how we as individuals hang on to tragedies and end up defining elements of our lives is something that’s pretty unspecific to time and place” he says.

After all stories of war are perhaps most meaningful when filtered through an individual’s experience and A Bomb in the Heart is more about Wahab than about his country of origin.

Mallett says the character is “trying to find a way to tell a story about how he’s arrived where he is as much from an emotional standpoint as a physical one.”

Davé adds “It’s a lot about his confusion; he’s really trying to sort things out. He doesn’t start the play with a resolve to tell a story that he knows everything about; he’s unsure from the beginning.”

The action of the play occurs through many of Wahab’s memories as he relives moments and people from his past. While the script itself is devoid of stage directions video projections designed by Erin Gruber supplement Davé’s acting sometimes serving as a subtle backdrop and other times becoming almost as present as a second actor onstage.

“The play is working in a number of different realities interchangeably which to me adds to the richness of the experience for the audience” says Mallett who also comments on the poetic nature of the text itself.

Following Wahab through his personal journey both physical and emotional won’t necessarily lead you to a particular destination. Davé isn’t sure how audiences will react after the curtain falls.

“It’s hard to say whether or not they’ll feel a sense of empathy or whether they’ll be confused” he says. “It’s really up for grabs as it is for the character probably.”

But he hopes audiences will feel empowered to better communicate their feelings and their stories “to not keep oppressive thoughts locked away out of fear.”

Mallett summarizes A Bomb in the Heart as the first chapter in a story of transformation. “There’s a sense of hopefulness about what may come next for [Wahab] but the work isn’t done.”

And so likely the work of audience members isn’t done either. Mallett hopes that the play will incite meaningful discussion and possibly “foster some degree of appreciation for the individual complexity that lives inside each of us.” Whether that’s coming to terms with your own complexity or reaching out to others to understand theirs is to be determined.