Noel Coward once described Ibsen’s The Wild Duck as a play about “a stuffed bird sitting on a bookcase squawking, ‘I’m the title! I’m the title!’” The title animal in Emil Sher’s Mourning Dove doesn’t literally squawk (neither does Ibsen’s) but its symbolism is equally heavy-handed. And that’s too bad because the subject is profound—and profoundly interesting.
Mourning Dove dramatizes the story of Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer, convicted of second-degree murder for mercy-killing his 12-year-old daughter Tracy in 1993. Tracy suffered the agony of severe cerebral palsy, had endured numerous surgeries, and was about to undergo another when Latimer put her in his truck and ran a hose from the exhaust into the cab. He claimed he did it for love.
In the play we never see the daughter, here named Tina Ramsay, though we hear her whimpers and groans (voiced effectively from offstage by Laura Van Dyke). Angela Conrad’s Pacific Theatre production represents Tina by a circle of light on the floor of her father Doug’s workshop. The absence of a physical body makes the other characters’ anguish and concern for her feel somewhat abstract. But it puts the focus squarely on them and the choices they make.
Doug (Kerry Van der Griend), wife Sandra (Anita Wittenberg), and family friend Keith (Ron Reed) put on a play about Noah’s arc for Tina. The Noah play is theatrically lame but cleverly poses the play’s central issue: for every two animals that Noah chose, he left behind a hundred to drown. Who gets to choose who lives and dies, on what grounds? And what’s God’s role in all this?
All Doug knows is that Tina’s excruciating pain has no end in sight. Sandra is willing to try new surgeries and trust in doctors and God. Mildly mentally challenged Keith would happily continue jollying Tina up with the animal puppets he carves for her, the latest being the dove of the title which gets to carry far too much symbolic weight, especially after Tina’s death.
Van der Griend’s strong, stoic Doug no doubt does it for love—the question is whether he has the right to do it at all. He offers the play’s most powerful argument when he has Keith tie him up in the wrenching, painful position that Tina lives in all the time. Reed does an excellent job with Keith, easily the play’s most theatrical character but also its most stagey. Wittenberg has the toughest job with Sandra, who seems believable only sporadically.
After Doug’s conviction she asks him whether he’d do it all again. He says yes—“only this time I’d stay in the truck.” Such simple, shattering moments are what make this play worth seeing.