THE DECEMBER MAN By Colleen Murphy, directed by Micheline Chevrier (Canadian Stage, 26 Berkeley). To May 17. Pwyc-$47. 416-368-3110. See listings. Rating: NN
Colleen Murphy’s Governor General’s Award-winning The December Man tackles a shocking subject in a surprising way. But after the initial novelty wears off, the power diminishes and you’re left with a pretty pedestrian play and a couple of strong performances.
The script is inspired by the massacre at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique on December 6, 1989. Jean (Jeff Irving) is one of the 50 male engineering students told to leave the classroom by Marc Lapine before he began his murderous rampage against the remaining 14 female students.
Although Jean survives, he’s racked with guilt, shame and fear and later commits suicide, followed, some time later, by his working-class parents, Benoit (Brian Dooley) and Kathleen (Nicola Lipman).
Here’s the gimmick. The play begins a few years after the massacre with the parents’ suicide and then travels back in time, like Harold Pinter’s Betrayal or Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.
This first scene is full of tension and humour. The devout Kathleen wants to meet Jean in heaven, but she doesn’t want to leave behind a messy house, so she tells Benoit to clean up his whisky glass.
She’s also worried about how her corpse will fall over. It’s the play’s best-written section, and Lipman and Dooley suggest a lot about their history and heartache.
What comes later – or, rather, chronologically before – is meant to show us the “why” of the situation, but the predictable sequence of emotions plays out like a reversal of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. Murphy sets many of the scenes during the Christmas holidays to provide a stark contrast to the gloom in her characters’ lives. A model of a badly constructed high-rise building (one of Jean’s assignments) acts as a wobbly symbol of their fates.
John Ferguson’s staid set and Ereca Hassell’s lighting tell us as much about the characters’ lives as the forced dialogue, and director Micheline Chevrier takes special care between scenes to guide us back in time.
The two older actors are strong, and buried in here may be a point about how differently women and men express pain, but Irving doesn’t quite connect with the role of Jean. Maybe it’s because, ordinarily, actors are best when they work with a subtle subtext.
Here the subtext is so obvious, there’s no mystery left. And no drama either.