Montreal playwright David Fennario, creator of Balconville, has died at age 76

Playwright David Fennario passed away on Saturday after months of health complications. He was 76.  (Facebook/Tom Fennario - image credit)
Playwright David Fennario passed away on Saturday after months of health complications. He was 76. (Facebook/Tom Fennario - image credit)

Montreal playwright David Fennario, whose most celebrated work is the 1979 play Balconville, has died, according to his son. He was 76.

Balconville was heralded as groundbreaking portrayal of a group of working-class people living in the city's Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood.

About a third of the dialogue was performed in French, making it the first bilingual play in the history of Canadian theatre. The play debuted in 1979, a year before Quebec's first sovereignty referendum.

His son, Tom Fennario, describes him as a proud Montrealer who had even deeper connection with his neighbourhood, Verdun.

"It was kind of crazy. If you asked him where he's from, he'd be like 'Verdun, Pointe-Saint-Charles," Tom said, playfully mimicking his father's stern voice.

"It was exhausting sometimes to hear him talk about the history of Verdun and Pointe-Saint-Charles and how much he wanted to celebrate this place that he felt like, when he was a writer coming up, needed to be celebrated."

Fennario was the first writer-in-residence at Centaur Theatre, where Balconville debuted.

"He meant so much to me, and helped me so much in my life," said Maurice Podbrey, co-founder of the Centaur Theatre. "I just hope that I helped him in equal measure."

Podbrey said he and Fennario were instantly friends from the day they met, and he wrote plays that helped shape Centaur Theatre — plays that dove into the role English-speaking Montrealers play in the city and province.

The playwright was known for his social activism. He famously picketed his own play in solidarity with ushers who were on strike.

"That sums the old man up in a nutshell," his son said.

'Principled, political voice' 

Pat Donnelly, longtime theatre critic for the Montreal Gazette, said she met Fennario in 1975 through mutual friends. The first of his plays that she saw "were a revelation to me because it reflected a working-class reality," she said.

"They were relatable plays," she said. "Witty, familiar characters you just wanted to spend the night in the pub with."

His plays helped raise the profile of the anglophone community in Quebec, particularly the working-class part of that community rather than the stereotypical, wealthy English speakers of Westmount, Donnelly said.

Eda Holmes, artistic director at Centaur Theatre, said she met Fennario in 2018.

"He had a lot of projects on the go which we were looking at doing, but then the pandemic struck," she said.

"David struck me as an incredibly forceful, principled, political voice. He was very intelligent, and opinionated and really warm and funny."

Holmes said she is sad the pandemic stopped so many potential projects.

In 2002, Fennario was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, which attacks the nervous system.

In recent months, his health had worsened, his son said, and his death was expected.

"We thought he wasn't going to necessarily going to make it to July, but he made it to September. That's just the way my dad was. He was tough," his son said.

"He was occasionally infuriating. He was a huge presence. He took up a lot of space, but we all loved him. And we'll miss him dearly."

David Fennario passed away in hospital on Saturday surrounded by loved ones.