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Pride and love explored through “dark history”

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The Shunning
Robb Paterson, director
Manitoba Theatre Centre, 2011

Mennonites have some dark marks in history, and for the most part they don’t like to talk about them, but Patrick Friesen’s play The Shunning brings one of those dark marks to the light. Based on a narrative poem published in 1980, the play was first performed in 1985. While Friesen weaves cultural aspects of Mennonite heritage into the play, it stands as a dark story about one of their harshest punishments.

Running roughly two hours, the play has two acts. The first deals with Peter Neufeld (played by Mike Shara) and his theological questions about God. Peter holds to his conviction that hell could not be if God is love. This belief is in direct conflict with the beliefs of the church, and is questioned strongly by Reverend Loewen (Rob McLaughlin). Because Peter is threatened with shunning, his wife Helen (Daria Puttaert) and brother Johann (Kevin Klassen) urge Peter to “repent” and bend to the church’s beliefs. He is told to keep his thoughts to himself. Peter refuses; the first act ends with the start of his shunning.

The second act is the aftermath. We watch as Peter is surrounded by community but isolated from it, not accepted in it. His wife is not allowed to share his bed with or touch him, his children are afraid of him, and the community only sees his shame. He withdraws and is only visited by his brother and the reverend with pleas to repent. Peter spirals downward into insanity and his own private “hell on earth,” where he feels the isolation from his family, community, and God. Seeing this, one comprehends why shunning was considered one of the harshest punishments.

Is The Shunning a commentary on Mennonite religious history? Not quite. While Mennonite “culture” is in the forefront, it only serves as the setting. Mennonites’ dark history is on display in this particular telling, but there are other cultures and religious groups that have had similar practices. Friesen merely used the perspective he knew to explore questions about belief.

Springboard for dialogue

I found that the play had more to do with the topics of pride, forgiveness, conviction, and God’s love versus hell. I found myself asking: who was more prideful? Was Reverend Loewen really after control, or was he genuinely concerned with the well-being of the community and Peter? This play was written at a time, and about a time, when questions about religious beliefs were viewed as suspect. I hope the play acts as a springboard for deeper dialogue.

A point of worry can be summarized by a comment I heard from one of the patrons: “Those Mennonites really take their religion seriously.” I wanted to reply, “Yes we do, but…” we are not closed to discussion, and we do not shun those who don’t think the way we do. In our society, Mennonites are seen as closed and strict in belief and discipline; unfortunately this play, despite its historical setting, may reinforce some of those stereotypes.

Production-wise, I commend the actors for their portrayal of complex characters thrown into a complex situation. However, a warning to any Mennonite stock, your musical blood may be curdled by the cast’s attempt to sing some beloved hymns, as was mine.

All in all, the production was very well done, but if one were expecting a light-hearted evening of entertainment, one would be misled. With the exception of the character of Johann, who is a joker (especially in his monologue about “what is a Mennonite”), the play is slow-moving, dark, deep, and sombre. It’s not an easy play to watch, but it can provide great points for further discussion.

Mitch Krohn has a BA in theatre from University of Winnipeg, has been a drama coordinator in multiple congregations. He is a Winnipeg Fringe Festival veteran, and has been performing for more than 20 years. He is currently part of the Crosseyed Rascals Improv Troupe, and is theatre ensemble director at Canadian Mennonite University.

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