“Tommy” – by Reid McLean Wiest
One of the ‘tourism’ stops we planned during the Ontario leg of the Canada trip was the Stratford Festival to see the musical “Tommy”. If you’ve never been, Stratford is a picturesque town of 30000, whose claim to fame (apart from Justin Bieber) is its renowned professional theatre, featuring the works of Shakespeare. They boast a dozen plays every year running May through October, and usually two are musicals. We were fortunate to secure a batch of tickets to “Tommy” at a reduced rate for HtH travelers to attend.
The production was outstanding, complete with The Who’s virtuoso rock soundtrack, top drawer performers, rapid-fire set changes, and technical wizardry, including a huge LCD screen covering the backdrop of the stage, reportedly at a whopping $1 million price tag. It blew me away!
However, beyond the production itself, what strikes me now months after we saw the show is the story of “Tommy”, and several of the themes it explores. Of all the musicals we could have seen with HtH, it was interesting that our group would see a story featuring several types of injustice against children.
If you’ve never seen the musical, I’ll summarize the plot here. The story begins during the second World War, with the meeting and marriage of a military Captain Walker and his wife. Soon Mrs. Walker is pregnant, but before the delivery, Captain Walker is called away from home to serve in the war in Germany. Unfortunately, he is captured by the Germans, and held as a POW for the remainder of the war. However, he is classified and missing and presumed dead by the army, and Mrs. Walker is informed she is now a widow, just before she gives birth to her son, Tommy.
Here is the first injustice against children we see, that of children with no fathers. Did you know that fatherlessness is epidemic in our culture today? Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church, has stated that somewhere between half and two-thirds of kids in the U.S. go to bed without being tucked in by a dad. In most cases, however, their dads haven’t been killed in war. The biological fathers are simply absent, not involved in raising their kids, leaving the job to single moms. It is well-documented that kids who grow up without a significant father influence are at increased risk of all kinds of personal and social problems.
The widow Mrs. Walker soon moves on, starting a relationship with another man, who is in essence, Tommy’s stepdad. But the war ends, Captain Walker is rescued and returns home to find his wife in the arms of the other man. Mrs. Walker is surprised and pleased to see her husband didn’t die after all, but the other man picks a fight with Captain Walker over ‘his woman’. In the fight, Captain Walker pulls out his gun and kills the other man, while their young son Tommy witnesses the murder while looking through a mirror.
The next injustice against Tommy plays out at this point. Rather than accept responsibility for murdering the other man, Captain Walker and his wife try to cover it up. They insist to Tommy that he not tell anyone what happened, that if anyone asks he didn’t hear or see anything. Captain Walker is arrested, but the deception pays off as he is eventually exonerated of the murder charge. However, Tommy has suffered a deep psychic blow, and enters into a state where he does not appear to see, hear or speak, frequently staring into the mirror. He remains in this state of unresponsiveness until he is a teenager, much later in the play.
However, during his many years unable to communicate, Tommy suffers multiple others forms of abuse, including bullying by peers, invasive medical investigations, and sexual abuse at the hands of a drunk uncle. Tommy’s father even takes him to a heroin-addicted prostitute to see if she might be able to wake Tommy up from his trance. So much of the injustice against this child was at the hands of caregivers, behind closed doors. There were many reminders and parallels of what we had been learning in HtH about the history of aboriginal people in Canada, as well as the Little Warriors training our group did earlier in the year.
Tommy gains some renown as a prodigy playing pinball (the ‘Pinball Wizard’), but he still remains deaf, dumb and blind, trapped in his own mind, until his mother in desperation breaks the mirror. This act brings Tommy back to reality, he starts to communicate normally again, and his cure is widely hailed as a miracle. But then the plot gets a bit weird and Tommy becomes a famous rock star, and the world looks to him as something of a messiah-character with secret knowledge and access to a higher place within oneself. However, Tommy wishes only to be normal like everyone else, and ultimately his fans reject him for it.
But Tommy finds some peace in the process, and he even displays some forgiveness to his parents and uncle for the trauma and abuse he suffered. This theme of forgiveness in spite of the depth of injustice is inspiring, and illustrates a key point in the Christian worldview. Forgiveness leads to freedom and life, whereas bitterness leads to bondage, where you become like those who sinned against you, and the cycle of injustice continues. That being said, the ending of the musical is somewhat muddled, the forgiveness is not complete, and like real life, it’s all quite a bit messy.
But it was a great night out and a memorable event during our HtH travels.