Evan Frayne as Norman Morrison

Norman Morrison, as remembered by his family:

– He rode a second-hand bike and liked to wear a helmet.
– He was fond of carpentry, gardening, and hockey.
– He delighted in frugality, purchasing suits for $2 and $3 at rummage sales and was fascinated by the stock market, though he never bought a stock in his life.
– He was frustrated by his inability to communicate as a public speaker and was not always at ease socially.
– Each year he withheld $5 from his income tax as a “token protest” against the US federal government’s military budget.

Playwright and co-Artistic Producer Sean Devine came across Norman Morrison and his sacrificial act protesting the Vietnam War while researching Robert McNamara and Vietnam war era politics for another play.

Re:Union touches upon the story that made the headlines back on November 2, 1965:

Norman Morrison, a Quaker from Baltimore, drove to the Pentagon with his infant daughter, a jug of kerosene, and a box of matches, setting himself aflame in protest of the Vietnam War.

Evan Frayne and Alexa Devine
[Evan Frayne and Alexa Devine]

The probability of a reserved young husband with children to drive off with his baby daughter to do what he did, all for the sake of a nation halfway around the world, was something that Devine found both remarkable and admirable. He was moved to tell the story, although the Morrison family would have rather seen their drama carried out in, well, less of a dramatic piece.

This is a passage from “The Living and the Dead: Robert McNamara and Five Lives of a Lost War“:

175,000 men were in the process of going in. American bombers had been raining destruction on the north since the previous February. And a thirty-one-year-old, deeply religious Baltimore Quaker whom almost nobody in the wider secular world had ever heard of — certainly not Robert McNamara— sat on a wooden stool in his kitchen one fall day and wiped his hands through his chestnut hair and said to his wife, “What will it take?”

The Morrison family did help to enlighten Devine with pieces of personal history, as they’ve lived through that fateful day and its aftermath for nearly 40 years. I believe that even though they’d have perhaps preferred a more realistic tale, had they seen the play, they’d have been moved by the reenactment of famous moments during that era.

Alexa Devine as Emily Morrison
[Alexa Devine as Emily Morrison]

In one scene, McNamara receives a Medal of Freedom, providing a golden opportunity to speak the truth about the war, but he’s never able to muster the nerve to do it, instead botching the attempt over much throat clearing and a choked 23-word speech. Emily Morrison is horrified to watch this moment played out on microfiche while at the National Archives one morning.

Norman Wheeler as Robert McNamara
[Norman Wheeler as Robert McNamara]

The play’s cast is strong and Andrew Wheeler is particularly convincing as Robert McNamara. Norman Morrison (Evan Frayne) appears in front of his lecture students and quickly intersperses lessons with religious quotes and stories. As the play progresses, moments in time are frozen to recap and bring meaning to Morrison’s daughter Emily (played by Alexa Devine), who 36 years later, has come to Washington for answers. And to possibly stage her own act of protest.

She confronts McNamara, who at first doesn’t believe it’s really her. She responds by telling him that she was an infant the last time he’d seen her. He quips, “So you’re taller now.” All jokes aside, he’s visibly shaken from years of trying to forget the incident that occurred under his Pentagon office window in 1965.

Evan Frayne

The staging is remarkable. A talented team of sound and set designers are behind this production, including Stage Manager Lois Dawson, Production Manager Frank Nickel, and Technical Director Jessica Howell. It’s brilliantly executed over the course of two hours (with a 15 minute intermission). Elements are worked down to the finest detail, from video footage to lighting techniques to sound.

I enjoyed Re:Union, though I did find the religious portions a tad draining after awhile. Within the first half, it’s made abundantly clear that Norman Morrison was a religious man. Through a sprinkling of humour, a lot of emotion, and moments of anger, this play drives home the fact that both the concept of war, and the heroes that arise from it, are timeless. And sadly, nothing much has changed over the past 40 years.

So many questions surrounding the Morrison incident (and the play itself) remain unanswered, but according to Devine “The generation that Norman Morrison inspired emboldened themselves with a conviction of love for all humanity that helped topple unstoppable forces.”

Venue: Pacific Theatre, 1440 West 12th Avenue, Vancouver
Dates: October 21 to November 12 (Wednesday – Saturday, 8 pm, Saturdays 2 pm matinee)
Artist talkbacks on October 28, November 4 and 11

All photos courtesy of Pacific Theatre.


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