Mourning Dove – Afterword

Mourning Dove began as a commissioned radio play for CBC’s Morningside, directed with great care by Gregory J. Sinclair and first broadcast in 1996. Inspired by a true story of a father who killed his severely disabled daughter in the name of love, Gregory and I never set out to recreate the facts of a story that made national headlines and continues, to this day, to spark passionate debates. Rather, the seeds of an actual event were transplanted into a fictitious world where motivations could more fully be explored, characters could be created to challenge hard-won beliefs, and family dynamics could be laid bare. Selected as the Canadian entry in the inaugural WorldPlay Festival showcasing English-language radio drama, Mourning Dove has been broadcast in the U.S., Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and South Africa and translated into Slovak.

When Dave Carley, a colleague and accomplished playwright for both stage and radio, suggested I adapt Mourning Dove for the stage, I resisted. Much of a radio drama’s power is generated by a listener’s imagination, as colours and textures are added to a landscape drawn by the playwright. This is particularly true in a play like Mourning Dove, where the role of the disabled daughter was distilled into her laboured breathing. To hear Tina breathe is to know her character. To see her on stage would reduce her spirit to a shopping list of misguided concerns: What would she look like? How would her twisted limbs be positioned to suggest pain? I felt these kinds of questions would derail the story’s dramatic thrust and turn a character into a sideshow. Only when I realized I could borrow from the best of what radio has to offer did I pursue Mourning Dove as a stage play. I grew to believe that an essential character could be made real by marrying two elements — breath and light.

No sooner had I cleared one hurdle did I face several others. Adapting a radio play for the stage presents challenges that underscore the strengths and limitations of each genre.

It took several drafts for the stage version of Mourning Dove to find its footing, a trial-and-error process made less arduous with a guiding hand from Richard Rose, then artistic director of Necessary Angel Theatre Company in Toronto. After listening to the radio play Richard agreed to offer dramaturgical input in the play’s journey toward a stage production. Input can be invaluable, but what about income? Bills can’t be paid with rewrites, and I am indebted to Necessary Angel and three arts agencies for the funding they provided while I wrote — and rewrote — Mourning Dove: the Canada Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council.

The drafts written while I was a playwright-in-residence at Necessary Angel led to a two-week workshop directed by Richard Rose that featured the insights of R.H. Thomson, Maggie Huculak, Fabrizio Fillipo, Victor Ertmanis and Caroline Gillis. The workshop led to a staged reading, with Kathryn Westoll as stage manager, in January 2002. The play had come a fair distance by then but was still too wedded to the radio play, or anchored to small details I had gleaned from the story that served as its inspiration. A comment by R.H. Thomson proved to be a turning point in the play’s genesis. He linked the dove — introduced in the radio play and preserved in the adaptation — to the story of Noah’s Ark. At first, I resisted the suggestion that the Noah story be woven into the play; it felt like a playwright using a heavy hand to nail a metaphor onto a script. But it made perfect sense for Doug Ramsay, a character who internalised his emotions, to harness the Noah story as a way of conveying his unspoken intentions. Two characters from the radio play and earlier stage drafts that I had once thought vital to the story — a medical doctor and police officer — were dropped. Puppets fashioned by Doug and Keith to entertain and engage Tina were introduced.

A timely opportunity to present the radically reworked script arose at a weeklong workshop held at the University of Lethbridge in April 2002. Professor Brian Parkinson oversaw the Canadian Plays in Development program and chose Mourning Dove as a work worth examining. I spent an invaluable week with Richard Rose and a class of enthusiastic students shaping the script and getting it up on its feet at a staged reading. The Lethbridge workshop gave birth to more changes that were showcased later that year at the National Showcase of New Plays in Philadelphia, sponsored by the National New Play Network and hosted by InterAct Theatre.

Brian Parkinson, the personification of grace, chose to produce an earlier version of Mourning Dove in Lethbridge in March 2003. He knew I felt the play was incomplete but believed its strengths outweighed its shortcomings and included it in his season at New West Theatre. This was a gift: to see a work staged, knowing the clay of the script is still wet and can be reshaped. Watching the cast — Jeff Carlson, Erica Hunt, Ben Meuser and Misty Kozac — bring the script to life in a full-scale production was like meeting long-lost relatives whose stories are in your bones.

Scripts evolve. Characters grow. Artistic directors move on. Richard Rose left Necessary Angel, the dynamic company he had founded, when he was appointed artistic director at Tarragon Theatre. As is often the case, a script nurtured at one theatre dies on the vine at another. Disappointment, long an occupational hazard of the trade, was short-lived. In December 2003 I decided to stage my own reading of the play, in the hopes of generating interest in the wider theatre community. I rented a theatre in a library and, with R.H. Thomson on board to direct the reading, attracted a stellar cast. Fab Fillipo agreed to revive the role of Keith he had brought to life at an earlier workshop, and I was given three more reasons to believe in the boundless talent of Canadian actors: Ron White, Stavroula Logothettis, and Mary Francis Moore.

The reading caught the attention of Lorne Pardy, artistic director at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa. He asked to read the latest version of the play — fifteen drafts and counting — which had changed significantly from the workshop he had seen some two years earlier. A few months later, Lorne had committed to direct the premiere of Mourning Dove. He assembled an inspiring cast to play Doug and Sandra: Tim Webber and Kate Hurman both brought great skill, compassion and commitment to the roles. Ben Meuser — who had played Keith in both the staged reading and production in Lethbridge — was offered the opportunity to bring his passion and gifts for the role and made his professional debut in Mourning Dove. And what of Tina? I had long believed that Tina had to be real, and not a recording. I knew the cast would respond in very different ways if an actor was there — in rehearsals and off-stage during the run — than if Tina was simply a disembodied voice piped in through speakers. After a bit of to-and-froing — artistic directors always have one eye on a balance sheet — Lorne agreed. Stephanie Burchell, a student at the Ottawa School of Speech and Drama, became Tina: never ‘seen’ but always there.

In addition to a marvellous cast, the creative team at GCTC worked their magic and transformed a script into an experience. Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting, Duncan Morgan’s score, Kim Neilsen’s design, Sarah Feely’s wardrobe and props: each played their part in contributing to a very satisfying whole. Shainna Laviolette was a reminder that a stage manager, the unsung heroes of the theatre world, is the mortar that keeps a production from falling apart. Lorne Pardy took on the challenge of presenting a play by an unknown playwright, presenting a work that is not, at first blush, an easy sell. It is hard to imagine throngs rushing to see a play that is, ostensibly, about a father who kills his disabled daughter. Lorne knew it was much more than that, I am grateful that he embraced the story as artfully as he did.

All plays are, essentially, a work in progress. Each time a play is remounted it is in reinterpreted. Each time it is read, it is re-imagined. But a play also has a core that is immutable. Each draft of Mourning Dove brought me closer to ageless questions about complex moral choices, a place where tidy resolutions can never take root. The journey has been long but gratifying. The journey was made all the richer because it was shared. And the journey is not yet over, as long as there are those willing to ask questions that beget more questions.

Emil Sher
May 2005
From the published version of Mourning Dove
(Playwrights Canada Press, 2005)