— Alexa Devine and Evan Frayne in Re:Union. Photo: Ron Reed.
Watching Sean Devine’s intelligent new play at Pacific Theatre, it’s impossible not to hear echoes of the Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Vancouver movement. When the central character in Re:Union--Norman Morrison, the Quaker who burned himself to death in 1965 outside the Pentagon office of U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in protest against the Vietnam War--speaks about the responsibilities of “conscientious people in unconscionable times,” he might very well be speaking to us.
Re:Union asks a series of fascinating questions about guilt and responsibility, the need to take action against the unconscionable and the prices to be paid for inaction and for inappropriate action. John Langs’ stylish Pacific Theatre/Horseshoes & Hand Grenades co-production fills the tiny 12th Avenue theatre space with very strong acting and some of the most impressive lighting (John Webber), sound (Noah Drew) and projection effects (Jason H. Thompson) ever seen there.
But in the end the play may be too overwritten and overproduced for its own good.
Its complicated, fragmented structure cuts back and forth between the prelude to Morrison’s 1965 self-immolation and the days leading up to its 36th anniversary in November 2001. In the aftermath of 9/11, Morrison’s daughter Emily (Alexa Devine), an infant at the time of his death, has decided to honour her father by protesting the Patriot Act and the bombing of Afghanistan, once more confronting the now 85-year-old McNamara and performing what she calls “an act of domestic terrorism” at the Pentagon.
As Morrison (Evan Frayne) ties himself in theological knots trying to justify his martyrdom via a lengthy Kierkegaardian interpretation of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command, we wonder whether this is brilliant theology or just excruciating rationalization.
At the same time Emily moves from absolute certainty about the righteousness of her plan to painful doubt as McNamara makes her wonder whether her father had intended to sacrifice her along with himself on that day.
McNamara (Andrew Wheeler in a magnificent performance) is the play’s most interesting and complicated character. Gruff and funny, impossibly self-confident and self-righteous, he’s the technocratic manager who can justify “precision bombing” a church full of women and children as a strategic target because “data do not lie.” But he’s also a man haunted by the things he has done, the lies he’s concealed, the dead he has left in his wake.
The play and production bombard us with history and ideas, ethical ambiguity and complex theatrical technology to the point where nothing is entirely clear. That may be true to life but it’s little comfort in unconscionable times.