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The official body count was 14 that horrendous day in Montreal in December, 1989, but there were, of course, more than 14 victims. Aftershocks of the killings by Marc Lépine at the city's L'École Polytechnique are doubtless still rippling through Quebec and Canadian society.

It takes no small amount of courage for a dramatist to grapple with a tragedy of these proportions, one still so fresh in our memories. Can a dramatic treatment really add to the sum of our understanding? Or will it be seen as manipulative, shamelessly mining the massacre for commercial gain?

They are issues likely to be raised whenever an artist turns to the deadly shootings for inspiration - questions that will come up again next year, when filmmaker Denis Villeneuve releases his film about the tragedy, Polytechnique.

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But they are issues that playwright Colleen Murphy has thought about, at some length.

Smart in many ways, her December Man ( l'homme de décembre) - opening tonight at the Canadian Stage in Toronto - deftly sidesteps the exploitative trap doors inherent in the story. It does so in the first instance by aiming its lens not at the obvious targets, the helpless young women, but on a fictional survivor, one of those young men allowed to leave the engineering classroom that became a killing field.

Lucky to survive? In this case, not. Racked by guilt, tormented by his failure to intervene, he eventually takes his own life, leaving his distraught, working-class parents struggling to cope with their own tragedy.

This is the Montreal horror considered at one remove and condensed into the manageable form of a single family. Sadly, it could be anyone's story.

The play mirrors, but is not based on, the real-life history of Sarto Blais, a young man ordered out of the room that dark December day, who took his own life months later. And just as Blais's grieving parents subsequently committed suicide, so too do Murphy's fictional couple, the Fourniers.

There is no sermonizing here, or very little. Murphy is far less interested in analyzing the event than on weighing its emotional cargo. Her insights are about psychology, not criminology.

She further deflects the claim of exploitation by another bold move - framing the action in eight scenes that run backward in time. Like Harold Pinter's Betrayal, we begin at the end, and work our way to the beginning. The structure forfeits a measure of plot suspense, but maintains a tight grip on psychological tension, as we watch the characters slowly unravel. Or re-ravel.

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"You have to have a really good reason for using that structure," Murphy conceded in an interview this week. "But I thought this was a better way to tell the story, that you could offer more insights than if you told it chronologically. If you know what's going to happen, it sets you as a viewer on a path that's pretty narrow."

The play, which won last year's Governor-General's Award for dramatic literature, appeared first at a 2007 festival in Calgary. It was remounted in February at Edmonton's Citadel, using the same director, Micheline Chevrier, and the same cast that is appearing in Toronto (Nicola Lipman, Brian Dooley and Jeff Irving).

Still, Murphy has been hovering over rehearsals and preview performances.

"There's always something to massage," she says, even the text. A cut here, a new line there. "It's amazing that when you pick away, you can always pick away. It's only when you see it lifted off the page and framed in three dimensions that you see it could be better."

Murphy began her creative life as an actor, training in Thunder Bay, Toronto and finally at New York's Strasberg Studio, and her fascination with the process of acting has endured. Perhaps more so with December Man ( l'homme de décembre) - the title's deliberate bilingualism speaks to the attempt to locate the universal in the specific - because the actors must navigate their conventional developmental arc in reverse. "It's very interesting - what these people do and how they do it."

Acting, in fact, is the likely genesis of her interest in drama. "Because after you could act these characters, I wondered how do you create them. I much prefer doing that."

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There's probably another reason why Murphy remains close to productions of her work. Her first experience as a playwright - with All Other Destinations Are Cancelled, at Tarragon in 1987 - was not a happy one. Later, she sardonically referred to the play as All Other Careers Are Cancelled.

"I was upset for many years. Plays take a long time to write and if they get blown out of the water because they're interpreted wrong, or miscast, or you're thrown out of rehearsal, as I was, it's not like you can stand up and say, 'Read the novel.' So I've learned the hard way. You can't leave it to chance, unless you have a long-term relationship with a director."

For more than a decade, Murphy turned her creative gifts at film, producing both features and shorts. She also married - legendary documentarian Allan King - and had a son, August, now 20, an aspiring composer studying at McGill. Eventually, she returned to theatre "because I love it."

Now, having just finished a short film on the freezing deaths of native men in Saskatchewan, she has two mammoth theatrical works in development. One is Deliver Me, a five-act epic set in third-century Roman Carthage, inspired by reading Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Think of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, with tragic elements. She's still writing, but she says a producer has been lined up.

The second project is equally ambitious, a five-act opera with epilogue, called The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G., with music by Edmonton composer Aaron Gervais. It deals with sex trafficking in Ukraine. She thinks that it will be three years before it's mounted. "I call it opera vérité, because it can be done on a bare stage."

Of the extended form, she says, "I like things longer. I like to write stuff I'd like to see. And I like those things."

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Murphy laments the decline in funding for new Canadian play development. "It's like classical music," she says. "People love classical music, but won't open their hearts and minds to new classical music. Or new classical opera. The reality is that to have a strong culture you need a lot of people writing plays. And a lot of them will not be good. But you have to do that because that's how you create the culture."


Ripples of a tragedy


Colleen Murphy's December Man (l'homme de décembre), about a working-class family dealing with the tragedy's fallout, opens at the Canadian Stage in Toronto


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Adam Kelly's The Anorak made its debut to positive reviews in Montreal in 2006. Kelly played killer Marc Lépine in the one-man show.


Montreal artist Rose-Marie Goulet created the public artwork Nef pour quatorze reines, which stands in Place du 6-Décembre-1989 near École Polytechnique, as a memorial to the 14 slain women.


The Quebec-filmed movie Polytechnique, which purports to tell the story of the shootings from the victims' perspectives, has finished shooting, and is reportedly slated for release next year.


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The tragedy has been explored in the lyrics of a number of Canadian bands, including the Tragically Hip ( Montreal) and the Wyrd Sisters ( This Memory).


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