Photo: Andrew Alexander
The December 6, 1989 massacre of 14 women — all engineering students at the University of Montreal’s École Polytechnique — was a tragedy with far-reaching proportions.
In her award-winning 2007 drama The December Man, playwright Colleen Murphy shifts the focus away from the murdered women and the mass murderer and on to a fictitious male student, Jean Fournier, and his parents.
Jean is presented as one of the males that murderer Marc LePine separated from the women before his killing spree. Jean’s guilt at living when they died and his remorse at not doing anything to save them destroys him as he succumbs to his survivor guilt. It also devastates his parents — blue-collar workers who had dreamed of their son becoming a successful engineer.
Beginning from the end of their road to destruction, Murphy rebuilds their shattered lives to the point before the moment of the murders changed and ultimately broke them.
The script depicts the banality of tragedy extremely effectively. Despite this and the contrasting power of the dramatization of survivor guilt (a term first used in the 1960s in reference to Holocaust survivors and now applied to PTSD sufferers) some aspects of the script do not ring true. For example, Jean’s mother Kathleen (Kate Hennig) is portrayed as a devout Roman Catholic. She knows that her religious beliefs regard suicide as a mortal sin with a consequence of consignment to hell rather than heaven. Yet she speaks of meeting her son in heaven.
In addition, as directed by Sarah Garton Stanley, the crashing around — a three-dimensional emphasis on emotional disintegration — and the repetitiveness of the scenic patterns lessen their impact. Further, while the use of cardboard placards at the beginning of most scenes might have been useful, any influence was lost because they were virtually illegible,
The performances, particularly Paul Rainville’s depiction of Jean’s father, Benoit, are strong and the relationship between husband and wife well established. The clarity of a relationship in jeopardy because of their son’s inability to work through his survivor guilt is the most effective aspect of the drama.
Yet, what remains for me is the sense that the shift of focus that is central to The December Man is somewhat disrespectful to the 14 victims and their families.
The December Man continues at the NAC Studio theatre to November 28.
Director: Sarah Garton Stanley
Set, props and costumes: Amy Keith
Lighting: Andrea Lundy
Sound: Michael Leon