THE DECEMBER MAN (L’HOMME DE DÉCEMBRE)
On December 6, 1989, fourteen female engineering students at Montreal’s École Polytechnique were murdered by gunman Marc Lepine. In what became known as the Montreal Massacre, Lepine ordered all the male students to leave the classroom before killing the women and himself.
In The December Man Colleen Murphy tries to imagine the impact of that day on one of the young men who was in the classroom, and on his parents, as they struggle with the horrors of its aftermath and his survivor’s guilt.
Featuring three of the most shattering performances you’re likely to see anywhere this year, Patrick McDonald’s almost unbearably powerful Green Thumb Theatre production shows how the devastating effects of such a tragedy continue to resonate far beyond the original event and its immediate victims.
Murphy focuses her theatrical microscope on the modest French-Canadian living room of the Fournier family. Jean (Charlie Gallant) is the only child of factory-worker Benoît (Ron Lea) and Kathleen (Bridget O’Sullivan), who cleans rich people’s houses—or did until the trauma reaches deep into her life. The play unfolds in eight intense scenes, but backwards, beginning in 1992 and ending on the day of the massacre.
It’s difficult to review this play without revealing its central climactic elements but I’ll try because—if you have an appetite for tragedy—you should experience this remarkable work for yourself. Suffice to say that things turn out badly for everyone. We get glimpses of Christmas and Easter in the lives of these Catholics, but the play offers little cheer or sense of resurrection. It’s a wintry, brutal December that the massacre blows through the characters’ souls.
All three struggle to find consolation for their grief and pain. Kathleen nags Jean to focus on his studies; his father urges him to let go, to know it wasn’t his fault. But Jean can’t stop the nightmares. He wakes up screaming to the women inside his head, “Run!” He takes karate lessons so that he’d have the courage to fight if it happened again. But they’re not enough to end his self-loathing, his feeling of being “a tiny frightened insect.” Portraying Jean’s terror and despair, Gallant is mesmerizing.
Lea and O’Sullivan offer equally powerful performances as the inconsolable parents. Neither Kathleen’s religious faith nor Benoît’s grounded common sense can keep them from cracking under the horrible strain. Director McDonald elicits complete physical and emotional commitment from all three actors and it can be scary, though moments of bleak humour provide some relief.
Offering little analysis of why such tragedies occur or how they might be avoided, The December Man gives us simply the acute anatomy of a nightmare.