On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore, drove to the Pentagon with his baby daughter. He poured a jar of kerosene over hmself, and immolated himself below Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s office window.
This ferocious moment is the inciting incident of Re:Union, the latest provocative and intellectually rigorous play at Pacific Theatre.
Playwright Sean Devine sets the main action in late 2001, weeks after the events of September 11th. Morrison’s daughter Emily (Alexa Devine) is all grown up with a child of her own, and has retraced her father’s footsteps to confront McNamara (Evan Frayne). Early in the play she says “I am the daughter of my father’s fire”, and is bent on getting the elderly McNamara to speak out against the messy conflicts the US is about to enter into.
Their scenes together reminded me a little of David Mamet’s Oleanna, if only for the way a younger woman and an older, more powerful man engage in high stakes if cerebral debate in an office. These are counterpointed by flashback scenes in which Morrison (Andrew Wheeler) lectures–for he apparently taught ethics at the college-level–the audience about Kierkegaard, Hegel and the Old Testament. While these scenes weren’t dreary per se, they did ask a lot of the audience.
The performers were all very strong–their work adds up to three subtle portraits in self-doubt. In addition to a demanding, wordy script, they had the challenges of interacting with a lot of on-stage technology. This is by far the most technically sophisticated show I’ve seen at Pacific Theatre. There were projections on multiple surfaces that displayed archival footage, set decoration and feeds from on-stage cameras. Director John Langs seems very excited by the possibilities of these devices. Emily routinely speaks into a tape recorder or one of the on-stage cameras, and the director uses a complex sound design to, on occasion, affect the speed of the on-stage performances. Actors ‘speed up’ or ‘rewind’ accordingly.
This stage technology still feels fresh, but it can become a distraction from the action or a crutch for the actors or playwright. Re:Union avoids most of these pitfalls, though there are a few flame effects which feel clunky, and invite unflattering comparisons to similar effects from film and television. In truth, I was also excited to see experiments with projections. As in Tear the Curtain and, to a lesser degree, Ride the Cyclone, they seem to be coming of age in the theatre.
One tiny technical quibble: ages ago, my lighting design professor at UVic, gave me some practical instructions on pre-show lighting of the auditorium. I’m not sure why I still remember it, for I gave up lighting design quite a while ago, but he said that this particular lighting only has two purposes: to enable the audience to find their seats, and read their programs. I had a hard time doing either before this show.
I come, lastly, to Sean Devine’s script. He’s taken on challenging material here–both Morrison’s act itself and the ideologies that surround it–but mostly succeeds on the strength of the three characters he’s drawn. I did feel the play’s inertia falter early in the second act, and thought Morrison’s lecture scenes in particular could bear with some tightening up.
I also wondered if the playwright was asking the right questions of the material, or whether he’s placed the emphasis on the right ideas. The play touches on the selfishness of Norman Morrison’s act, but doesn’t explore it in any depth. Additionally, I identified a certain smug certainty in Emily and McNamara’s conversations about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming conflict in Iraq. Nobody dared to defend the righteousness of these conflicts, not even a little. I felt like Devine confidently assumed that the audience was full of peaceniks.
I was sorry that I have yet to see Errol Morris’s apparently excellent documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. It would no doubt have informed by viewing of the play.
Re:Union asks a lot of its audience, but it rewards the attentive, thoughtful viewer. The play runs through November 12, and you can buy tickets here.