Monday, March 20, 2017

HART’S The December Man – Violence Casts a Large Shadow

Sam Ruble, Stan Yeend, and Patti Speight.
Photo by Nicole Mae Photography

By Tina Arth

On December 6, 1989, a disturbed young man went into an engineering classroom at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, ordered the men out of the room, and slaughtered 14 young women. The attack, with a body count even larger than 1999’s Columbine massacre, has had a huge and lasting impact on Canadians, but is little remembered south of the border. HART Theatre’s current production of playwright Colleen Murphy’s The December Man (L ' homme de décembre) ensures that its audience will never forget. Director Dorinda Toner (not surprisingly, a Canadian) and her tiny cast carefully hammer home the story, not of the killer or the women, but of the collateral damage done to one of the male students and his family; it is a tale that should resonate with anyone who has ever felt the impact of tragedy.

The material is presented in reverse chronological order, beginning with a scene in which fictional student Jean Fournier’s parents, Kate and Benoit, methodically prepare their home for a tidy joint suicide. Subsequent scenes show them agonizing over their son’s previous suicide, his inability to “just move on” from the trauma of being a survivor, and finally December 6, the fateful day when he escaped the immediate death visited upon the 14 women, but was nonetheless doomed by the experience. For anyone who takes a few minutes to read the Director’s note in the program and study Karen Roder’s stunning lobby display, there is no mystery to the facts of the massacre  – we know who dies, and when – but the real story is peeling away the layers to reveal and explore the inescapable despair that overwhelms Jean, Kate, and Benoit. Their story becomes a metaphor for all of us as we cope with a seemingly endless series of human crises that have become a hallmark of modern civilization.

The audience spends much more time with Kate (Patti Speight) and Benoit (Stan Yeend) than with their son Jean (Sam Ruble), so much of what we are shown (or left to infer) about Jean’s experience comes through the lens of his parents’ perceptions and reactions. Speight (who stepped in at the last moment and learned the whole part in just over a week) is maddeningly convincing as a blue-collar cleaning lady mom, clinging to both her Catholic faith and her faith in the ordinary to help her cope with unthinkable tragedy. Yeend comes closer to grasping the depth of Jean’s trauma; his nuanced performance creates a character at once intelligent but uneducated, struggling to identify the key that will allow his son to recover his equilibrium. By the time Ruble appears, the audience understands his character much better than either of his parents ever will. Ruble shifts from despair to fantasies of heroism and expresses an overwhelming, insurmountable loneliness that cannot help but resonate with the viewers.

The set is deceptively simple, a devastatingly normal detailed working class living room surrounded by a dark framework of studs (but no walls). The visual effect nicely reinforces the play’s thematic structure, suggesting physical prison bars as well as the psychological bars around a family trapped by their own, and society’s, expectation that business as usual is the key to overcoming the unthinkable.

Director Toner and her cast offer a powerful reminder that we must take care of each other, and find a way to connect in painful times, for there is no real solace in denial. There is no intermission to relieve the intensity, and the audience is encouraged to linger afterwards for a talkback session where they can explore their own feelings as well as those of the cast and crew. Because of strong language and mature themes, the show is not recommended for children.

The December Man is playing at the HART Theatre, 185 SE Washington, Hillsboro through April 2nd, with performances at 7:30 on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 on Sundays. 

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