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When Dove flies

Kate Watson talks to playwright Emil Sher about the ambiguities of mercy killing in his play Mourning Dove, on now at Neptune.


Emil Sher describes himself as a “news junkie,” and it shows in his work. His stage and radio plays often start with subjects ripped from the headlines—the tainted blood scandal, a child’s right to refuse medical treatment, the ethics of profiting from criminal acts or, as in the case of Mourning Dove, wrapping up at Neptune this week, mercy killing.

“We are of this world,” he says. “We can’t afford to be disconnected.”

Sher has always been intrigued by life’s ambiguities and gray areas, and that while his work often poses ethical questions, he’s not interested in providing answers, per se. “I’m not into preaching at all,” he says. “To come down on one side would be to write a political tract…That’s didactic. That’s not theatre. That’s a dogmafest and I don’t think that’s what audiences want.”

Mourning Dove was inspired by the case of Robert Latimer, a Saskatchewan farmer who ended the life of his severely disabled daughter. As the parent of two young daughters, Sher finds it difficult to imagine what he would do in the same situation. ”If you asked me today, I certainly can’t imagine killing one of my daughters…but if she were in unremitting pain from the day she was born? I don’t know what I’d do.”

Audience response has been overwhelmingly positive, although Sher says the strength of the play is that it can be interpreted differently depending on the viewers’ circumstances. It has been praised by people with disabilities as well as relatives and caregivers of the disabled.

Sher loves it when people share their responses to play with him. A student recently told him he had been overwhelmed and unable to say anything at the end of the play. Sher’s reaction: “Mission accomplished!” The playwright was also tickled when he received a letter from a woman who said she was still chewing on the play, days later. “I think live theatre requires more of an investment from the audience than film or television,” he explains. “But I also think the rewards are greater.”

He has purposely ended the play with a question. “I think the last line is the most important. Sandra, the wife, says, ‘She loves you still’ and Doug”—the father—“says, ‘You think?’ It makes you see that there is a crack—maybe not a big one—but a crack in Doug’s sense that what he did is absolutely right. You begin to see the doubt.”

While the subject matter may be dark, there are reasons to laugh in the play. “Its humour that comes from an honest place…from people who take themselves seriously,” he says. “But I think it’s in the context of wanting people to know there is light even in the darkness.”

Mourning Dove was first created as a radio play commissioned by the CBC in 1996, but Sher feels it works equally well on stage as on the airwaves. He writes for multiple mediums including film, fiction and essays, which allows him to choose the most effective way to tell a story. He stresses the importance of the silences in Mourning Dove and in the fact that the daughter, Tina, is never seen but her laboured breathing is constantly in the background—things that would be difficult to achieve on the page or screen.

He sees his writing, in all its forms, as a way to give voice to the marginalized. For instance, he managed to address the problems of the elderly and of abused women in Café Ole—a quirky romantic comedy movie, released in 2000. It was a case of a story that was best told on the big screen, and although he was approached to turn it into a stage play, he found it just didn’t work.

Though making a living as a freelance writer “is not for the faint of heart,” he has found that is a satisfying career for him, allowing him to both explore difficult issues and to provoke thought in others. “After all,” he says, “one of the most important parts of the creative process is the sharing.”

Mourning Dove until March 4 at Neptune Studio, 1593 Argyle, 8pm (Sat-Sun 2pm matinees), $20-$35, 429-7070

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