Written by Ian Nelson and directed by Denis Rouleau, The White Room (presented in French as La Chambre Blanche) is a story about home, family and how they define us — both by ourselves and those who would use such things as guilt by association.
A French play in two parts, it provides an important look at a reality that is unthinkable to some and inevitable to others. For those who cannot speak French, subtitles are provided on most days for everyone to enjoy.
The White Room stars Daniel Rasul Hassan (Paul Fruteau de Laclos), a Canadian citizen detained after causing a scene at the consulate in his attempt to return home. Held in the titular room, Daniel meets his interrogator (Bruce McKay) and finds out that he is on the no-fly list and will be questioned until the authorities find out what they need to know.
As the two talk, more is learned about Daniel’s situation as well as background, and the interrogator is even revealed to have a few secrets of his own. But as the hours become days and then months, one question remains unanswered: if Daniel is truly innocent, why would he be in such a hurry to go back to Canada?
The White Room is inspired by a 2004 news story about a Canadian citizen who found his return flight canceled and his name put on a no-fly list. He was then forced to spend five years in exile — including one year living in the Canadian embassy — as the Canadian government refused to issue him a temporary passport and let him return home.
Using this premise as a starting point, Nelson chose to look at the human element in this story and how someone’s biases or background can shape the outcome of such a situation.
The stage is sparse, the only setting being Daniel’s holding chamber, but the actors use the space to great effect. As most of the dialogue is French, subtitles are displayed at the top of the stage, but did not feel obtrusive or take away from the cast’s actions. The fact that there were only two actors likely helped this situation. Any more may have been confusing to follow, but with only two characters it was easy to connect the text with the lines being spoken.
The play itself was engaging and for the most part enjoyable, though the scenes did occasionally drag on. This was perhaps intentional — after all, the idea is to emphasize Daniel being stuck inside the consulate for months — but it does mean that the actors have to work harder to keep the interest of the audience.
Fortunately, Laclos and McKay manage to deliver in that regard, up to and including the most psychologically intense bouts of checkers and paper airplane-throwing you’ll see in theater, but whether this could hold up with a different cast and director is doubtful.
There are some harsh scenes in the play. Nothing is explicit beyond some foul language, but the treatment of Daniel might make viewers uncomfortable — especially in the first act.
It is not a happy story, but The White Room isn’t afraid to discuss the themes of racism, bias and bureaucracy that many Canadians face every day. It presents the underlying human nature to assume and judge. While understanding can eventually be reached through communication, this play does not pretend that it can dismantle prejudice on an institutionalized scale. At least not immediately.
The White Room is a fascinating character study that manages to tackle some important themes, especially the difference in how Canadians view themselves regarding equality and what actually takes place. While it may have served better if some of the scenes were condensed, no moment is without purpose and the strength of the acting and emotion presented will make up for any shortcomings.
Presented at Studio 914, The White Room will continue to play Feb. 13-15 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. The February 13, 14, and 16 showings feature English subtitles, and on February 15 there will be a chance to meet with the cast and crew after the show.