The mass murder of 14 women at the École Polytechnique in Montreal on December 6, 1989 is an event that will mark Canadians forever.
In a horrifying act of evil, 25-year-old Marc Lépine singled out female students to kill with a rifle. In one particularly barbaric incident, he divided a classroom into men and women, and then shot the female students.
More than two-and-a-half decades later, this incomprehensible event is still a gashing wound in our national psyche. That is why the The December Man by Colleen Murphy, which is playing at the National Arts Centre Studio until November 28, is a particularly brave work of art.
The play begins with Kathleen (Kate Hennig) and Benoît (Paul Rainville) inside their living room. Residents of a working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the married couple are dressed in their best clothes. At first, the audience can be forgiven for thinking that they are going to Church or a special family reunion. After a few moments, however, the truth is revealed: The couple have turned the gas on in their home in a suicide attempt.
The rest of the story then proceeds to run back in time, with each subsequent scene getting closer and closer to December 6, 1989. As the story progresses (or to be more precise reverses in time), we learn that the couple’s son Jean (Kayvon Kelly) had previously killed himself, which explains why his parents decided to die as well.
Jean’s breakdown we soon learn was the result of being a survivor of the École Polytechnique massacre, and in particular being one of the male students who was inside the ill-fated classroom where Lépine split the room into male and female students.
Overcome with guilt — Jean blames himself for not having stopped the mass killing — he begins to unravel. Soon he starts losing interest in school and eventually life itself.
The play haunts the audience by showing how the dark shadow of this terrible event marked not only the families of the female victims, but also those who “survived”. The word “survived”, however, needs to be marked with an asterisk, because in many ways the beginning of the end for the Fournier family started that terrible December day.
Murphy, who won a Governor General’s Award for Drama for this play, does not offer any deep insight or moral answers to the lives of her tragic characters. In fact, if anything, the dark cloud of this massacre acts like a cage in which the family cannot escape.
For those who like their stories to contain some form of positive closure, or who want to have some explanation — any explanation — for what happened, then this play may not be for you. Yet again, what could really explain what took place that terrible day?
This play ultimately works not because it has profound insights, but rather because it is brutally honest in its depiction of its doomed characters. While you may not find answers in this work, chances are that you will still be moved and the performance will stay with you long after it ends.
The December Man is running at the NAC studio until November 28. Tickets can be purchased online or at the NAC box office. Note: Latecomers will not be admitted to the performance.