In Down From Heaven, playwright Colleen Wagner explores the harshness and beauty of humanity in the face of impending apocalypse
In her plays, Colleen Wagner has scavenged the sun-scorched plains of the Dust Bowl, confronted the desperation of parents with a terminally ill child and tackled the horrors of war. It is against these expansive, turbulent backdrops that her characters struggle to survive.
"I feel that transformation of our selves is hard won," explains the Governor General’s Award-winning writer. "Whenever you read any sort of text, particularly classics or myths, human beings have to undergo baptism by fire. We have to burn our self up, so that hopefully the truer self can emerge."
The theme of change via extreme circumstances also lies at the heart of Wagner’s new play Down From Heaven, produced here by Montreal’s Imago Theatre. The story follows the well-to-do Braumbach family, who are quarantined in the basement of their luxurious home. Outside, society teeters on the verge of collapse as a pandemic and food crisis rip apart the old order.
"It’s pure fiction, pure imagination," Wagner insists, despite the obvious parallels to current fears surrounding H1N1 influenza. "It’s simply a fascinating world to put my characters in, because they’re imprisoned of their own choosing in order to protect themselves and for the good of others."
Today’s headlines aside, Wagner says the play first began to take shape during the SARS outbreak in 2003. She watched in terrified fascination as millions of domesticated birds were slaughtered around the world and, like many others, she braced for the apocalypse that never arrived.
Then, several years later, the playwright visited Rwanda to work on a production of her play The Monument. On that trip, she heard a constant refrain about the impending danger of global food shortages. And yet still she witnessed tables laden with fine cuisine, at least at hotels and restaurants that catered to Westerners.
The incongruous nature of these events got Wagner thinking and then writing. Now, she hopes Down From Heaven will similarly shake audiences out of their stupor. A great play, she says, quoting a friend, is like "a good cup of coffee – dark, robust, and it should keep you up all night."
"I sometimes feel we’re reluctant to be disturbed," Wagner concludes, "because it seems to be the antithesis to a happy, middle-class life. I think that concept actually denies us the beauty of inner and outer exploration."
Down From Heaven
At Monument-National (1182 St-Laurent Blvd.), to Oct. 3