The shadow cast by great violence is a trap, invisible but as constraining as prison bars. Sentenced to that mental prison, you may find your only escape is self-destruction.
The latter is chosen by Kathleen and Benoît Fournier, the working-class couple in Colleen Murphy’s incisively disturbing drama The December Man (L’homme de décembre).
When we meet them, they appear to be preparing for a big event, perhaps a visit from someone important. They’re carefully dressed. Kathleen (Kate Hennig) has tidied the house and badgers Benoît (Paul Rainville) to clean the glass after he downs a shot of whiskey to calm his nerves. What they’re actually doing is preparing to commit suicide together, having seen their lives shattered some years previously when their only child Jean hung himself. Jean, as we learn, was a survivor of the Montreal Massacre, the 1989 slaughter by Marc Lépine of 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique, and guilt drove him to death.
That the couple would take such care over their suicide is ridiculous, poignant, very human and tells us much about their carefully ordered life, a life now blown apart.
Revealing this much of the plot is not to spoil it because we know it all early on. Murphy’s play starts with the death of the parents and works backward to 1989. The structure isn’t confusing but it does conflict with our narrative expectations, distancing us a bit from the story even as that story sucks us into its vortex. That push-pull effect captures what the Fourniers experience as they watch, later in the play, their much-loved son spiral downward. They are outside his pain, unable to understand or fix it — Kathleen tries by pushing religion on him, Benoît by encouraging him to study karate as a distraction — even as they’re swept to tragedy by that pain. Murphy, who won a Governor General’s Literary Award for drama for the play, also deliberately avoids analyzing too deeply or proffering solutions to the Fourniers’ situation or the larger social issue of random, hate-fuelled violence. We, the audience, want to understand and fix the problems, but Murphy rebuffs that, plunging us firmly inside the lives of the confused parents.
This entrapment runs throughout the play which, incidentally, is not without humorous interludes. Kathleen – Hennig is only intermittently convincing in the role – is trapped by her religion, her bitterness, her controlling nature. The skeptical Benoît, subtly played by Rainville, lives a life limited to his contacts at work; he wants to understand his son Jean’s engineering projects but never having completed even grade school, he can only fake it. Jean, in a grippingly physical performance by Kayvon Kelly, is locked inside himself with no friends and no relationships beyond his family. When he careens about the living room, his hunched, taut body seems ready to explode – which it does in terrifying nightmares and wild fantasies about having taken heroic action instead of fleeing on that day. The psychic pain of all three is given powerful voice in Michael Leon’s cyclonic soundscape.
Amy Keith’s set underscores entrapment. A mix of realistic and imagined, like the daily ruminations of the Fourniers, it includes a living room set while a steel frame depicts the home’s walls. That frame suggests both a prison and open space, a metaphor for parents who glimpse freedom and potential for their son and themselves but have no clue how to attain it.
Under director Sarah Garton Stanley, the production does sag at times, but it’s a small price to pay for the experience of living, and dying, with the Fourniers.
Continues until Nov. 28. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca
First published by Langston in the Ottawa Citizen, November, 20 2015.