Theatre Review at Large: The December Man

Despite all the hooplah about CanStage's recent financial woes, the company deserves praise for its 2007-08 season at the Berkeley Street Theatre. CanStage's three Berkeley shows- The Pillowman, Palace of the End, and The December Man- are all unflinchingly honest looks at humanity's darker places. Bold choices, particularly when Toronto's theatre industry struggles with declining attendance, stagnant funding at the grim prospect of a North American recession.

As the old saying goes, fortune does indeed favour the bold. The Berkeley season has been at least an artistic success, bringing a welcome level of relevance and emotional depth to Toronto audiences. It is perhaps fitting then that the final show of the season, The December Man, should embody this trend so fully. While The Pillowman reveled in an almost cartoonish brutality, and Palace of the End spoke with the urgency of today's headlines, The December Man takes a softer, simpler look at the lingering destruction of a horrible crime. It is a very moving show, a detailed and honest look at a family consumed by guilt and loss.

The December Man tells the story of a Montreal family destroyed by the massacre of 14 women at
the Ecole Polytechnique on December 6, 1989. Rather than portray a family of one of the murdered women, playwright Colleen Murphy focuses on a survivor and his family. He is wracked with guilt and tormented by memories of the massacre, and his slow slide into despair allows Murphy to explore both the rippling damage of violence and the heartbreaking journey of a family coping with unimaginable loss.

This isn't easy subject matter, but Murphy does an excellent job of bringing tenderness and humanity to her characters. She resists both cliche and "what does it all mean?" moments in favour of faithfully drawn and insightful depictions of character. Murphy also structures her script in an interesting way, a reverse chronology where events run backwards. To her credit, even when we know what will happen in a particular scene, the emotional weight is never lost.

The December Man also features a trio of tremendous performances. Nicola Lipman brings a wonderful fragility to mother Kathleen, while Brain Dooley plays first his worry, and then his grief, with a workingman's bemusement. As Jean, the son drifting into despair, Jeff Irving charts his character's tortured journey with detail and insight. But the real strength of this cast is their work as an ensemble. A powerful sense of family is everywhere in The December Man, creating a compelling reality onstage and heightening the emotional stakes. No part of the family's relationship seems forced or contrived, and the end result in profoundly moving.

However, there are times when the emotional energy in the show falls a bit flat. While this is probably due to a few factors, I think the biggest culprit is the theatre itself. The raw openness of the Berkeley Street Downstairs can work against the finest of actors, sucking energy and sound into the rafters. Staging an intimate, three-person family drama in a yawning void is a difficult task, and unfortunately the production is not helped by its set. The scenery needs to focus and confine the action, projecting the energy forward rather than up. John Ferguson's set is far too open, forcing the actors to work extra hard to maintain the clarity of their actions. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that things occasionally go a bit soggy.

Brief lapses aside, The December Man is an important show. When dealing with a tragedy as monumental as the Montreal Massacre, it is easy to get lost in the grand themes and political implications. By confining the story to a single family, the show presents a simple, yet profoundly honest and searching meditation on violence, guilt and the powerful ties that bond families together.

The December Man continues until May 17 at the Berekely Street Downstairs Theatre. For tickets and information, call 416 368 3110 or visit

Photo: Nicola Lipman as Kathleen, Jeff Irving as Jean & Brian Dooley as BenoĂŽt. By Ian Jackson, Epic Photography.

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